Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

October 18, 2016

History in the Making

The end of this interminably painful election cycle is finally approaching, and that turns out to be shamelessly relevant to another installment of my childhood writing. I've unearthed two artifacts, one a piece of journalism and the other a work of fiction, that provide some historical perspective on the last time a Clinton entered the White House.

I wrote for my high school paper, The Centipede, and eventually became the Features Editor. (I'll delve more into my life as an intrepid student reporter in a future post.) When I learned there would be a polling place located at our school in November 1992, I mobilized some of the Centipede staff to conduct exit polls. The resulting article, "Poll Predicts Election Results", demonstrated that as Precinct 6 of Concord, Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation.

A refresher: In the 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton was elected into office with a comfortable lead over incumbent George H. W. Bush. Independent candidate Ross Perot took a strong share of the popular vote. For me, and for most of the people around me in a largely Democratic state, Clinton's election was a significant triumph. I was 17, and I had no memory of a time before Bush and Reagan.

My article about the election is mostly a dry comparison of our exit poll to the election results of the town, state, and nation, for the presidential race and the state referendum questions. I report that some voters "agreed to disclose their choices only if the reporter stepped into the side hallway, away from the line of people waiting to vote," which makes me wonder how annoying we were and how well we planned the logistics of our polling. I do at least remember doing advance research to determine where pollsters were permitted to stand.

The closing of the article also sticks out in my memory, because when I got this scoop, I knew it would make for a killer ending: "Perhaps the most interesting result of the exit poll was the confession of a hassled looking woman with a young boy. When asked for whom she voted, the woman responded confidentially, 'George Washington,' before the toddler dragged her away."

Unlike the article, I didn't remember anything about the lightly fictionalized story I found in my notebook from a few months later, on the occasion of Bill Clinton's inauguration. As usual, this piece ends just at the point when it's starting to develop a plot, but it offers a good picture of my excitement over Clinton's election.

The night before the inauguration, Dana watched the superstars fawn over Bill. She lay sprawled across her dad's bed with her math book open in front of her and guiltily watched the Inaugural Gala. Sure she had a lot of homework, but this was, as her mother would say, "history in the making."

Dana felt a certain obligation to watch the show anyway, since she had missed most of the election coverage. She hadn't seen any of the debates, though she was sorry to have missed Stockdale from the imitations she'd seen the next day. She had watched most of Clinton's speech after he won the Democratic nomination, but that was mostly because she wanted to see what Gore looked like. And she'd only seen about 5 minutes of Clinton's acceptance speech in November.

The gala was probably the most interesting, and certainly the fastest moving, part of the '92 election. She hadn't been that transfixed since she watched the election results slowly trickle in.

October 4, 2016

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was three very different novels, all full of surprises:

THE QUEUE by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette: Yehya needs surgery to treat an injury, but the mysterious and authoritarian Gate that controls the city has ruled his injury could not have been sustained, so operating is prohibited. In hopes of obtaining permission, Yehya joins the queue of citizens waiting for the Gate to open. As days and then weeks pass, the Gate issues ever more restrictive proclamations but remains closed, and the queue becomes a community with its own businesses, religious figures, and scandals.

THE QUEUE is compelling and unsettling. I was caught up in Yehya's ordeal and rooting for him and his friends to triumph even though success seemed unlikely from the start. The people Yehya meets in line are a fascinating group of characters, each set on pursuing a doomed quest to take back some control of their life.

At times the novel is playful about the absurdity of the situation, as when an argument breaks out over the length of the line and is resolved by a surveyor who happens to be among those waiting: "Asking for a bit of quiet, he ran some quick calculations, using his geographical knowledge of the area, information provided to him by both parties (representatives from the beginning and end of the queue), and a detailed description of the area's various landmarks and general terrain." More often, though, there's a grim hopelessness to what the characters are going through, and the book reads more like a plausible reality than an exaggerated satire. It's a fascinating, disturbing read.

→ In PLANETFALL by Emma Newman, a group of colonists left Earth in search of God's city on a planet seen in a vision by the Pathfinder Suh-Mi. After a successful journey across space, the colony has thrived for more than 20 years at the foot of the city, where Suh has retreated to commune with God. Renata, who was Suh's closest friend on Earth, is one of the engineers who built the colony. She's also one of the only people aware of the truth behind what happened during Planetfall, when some of the landing pods were lost during descent. It was believed there were no survivors, but now a young man has walked across the planet to the colony, and he's the offspring of lost colonists. His arrival threatens to expose the secrets Renata has lived with for decades, not only about the circumstances of Planetfall, but also about everything that keeps her apart from the rest of the colony.

This novel incorporates an interesting range of subjects. Highly advanced 3D printing and network-enabled brains are standard in this society, well-imagined by Newman, and used to good effect in the plot. Religion also plays a large role, and while I didn't get a clear enough idea of how the Pathfinder's vision first brought the colonists together, I was intrigued by the reveals about how technology and faith shaped the colony's belief system. In all areas of the worldbuilding, Newman mingles technology and the organic in ways I found inventive and unexpected. I was particularly impressed by the evolution of Renata's character, from the reader's perspective, and the additional subject this brings to the story.

I liked many things about this book, but there was much that frustrated me. Renata hints at and muses on the big terrible secrets of Planetfall repeatedly, offering the reader glimpses but not revealing the full story until the end, and eventually this withholding of the truth became too artificial a conceit. A couple of additional elements suffered from repetition or were drawn out too long, while the ending was rushed and underdeveloped. Though these problems made for a less satisfying book than I'd hoped, the compelling story and original worldbuilding offer plenty that's worth reading.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein: In 1943, a wireless operator working as a spy with the British Special Operations Executive is captured in Nazi-occupied France after her plane goes down. She's a defiant prisoner, but following weeks of torture and the indignity of being repeatedly called English when she's actually Scottish, she agrees to tell her captors everything she knows about the British war effort. Her account focuses on her friendship with Maddie, a skilled pilot who flies for the Air Transport Auxiliary (since women aren't allowed in combat). Eventually the reader and the Gestapo learn the full story of what led up to the two women's doomed flight to France -- sort of.

There are some narrative tricks in this novel, and I anticipated that going in based on the buzz surrounding the book, but that information sent my reading expectations in the wrong direction. I might have held back on becoming emotionally invested (I'm apparently the only reader who didn't cry, and I cry at books all the time) because I wasn't sure what to believe. I should have trusted the story more, so I recommend going with the flow instead of searching for the twist, because it's not quite that sort of twist.

This is a suspenseful book about friendship in extreme circumstances. The two main characters are wonderful to spend time with, and their fierce friendship made me happy even when their experiences filled me with horror. I was fascinated to read a war novel with women working in so many different roles, doing as much as they were permitted and a few things they weren't. A lot of research went into the book, and the details of history, piloting, and spywork are woven into the story well. If any of these elements sounds appealing, I think you'll devour this novel as eagerly as I did.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Yahm writes at Atlas Obscura about the history and operations of a library located on the U.S.-Canada Border: "It's easy for Americans to go into the Haskell--they merely walk through the front door. But for Canadians it's a little more complicated, because they technically have to cross the international line, which is demarcated by a cement obelisk and a line of flower pots." (Thanks, Book Riot!)

September 30, 2016

Build Your Own Religion

The last several examples of my childhood writing were from the many Steno notebooks I kept through high school and into college, so let's mix things up and check out some schoolwork.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I got my first Macintosh during high school, and amazingly, most of the work written on that computer still survives. Yes, for 25 years, I've preserved my documents across computers and operating system upgrades so I can subject you to them today. In order to give you a full understanding of my sacrifice before you express your gratitude, I'll mention that a couple of years ago I realized I was on the verge of losing the ability to open files created in obsolete word processing programs, and I tediously converted them one at a time to a readable format. You're welcome.

Anyway, as mentioned in a different earlier entry, I thought a lot about religion and my lack of it during my teen years, so it's not surprising I took a class in World Religions as a senior. (Another important factor was that one of my favorite teachers taught this elective.) The class gave me an opportunity to submit some creative writing, though I'm not sure how many of the assignments were intended to take the form of stories.

In a previous class, I'd hit upon the idea of writing imagined dialogues with historical figures, and rejecting the usual essay structure earned praise from that teacher, so I milked the format again for a paper entitled "Hinduism Evaluation":

Lisa entered the temple in search of answers. "What is real?" she asked Krishna.

"Brahman is real," responded Krishna.

"But what is Brahman?" Lisa asked.

"Brahman is infinite," said Krishna. "Brahman is sat, chit, and ananda; that is to say being, awareness, and bliss. And Brahman is infinite in all these things."

"So Brahman is everything?"

"No. Brahman is not everything. Anything you can conceive is not Brahman."

"So then what is Brahman?"

Krishna pointed at a stone. "Neti," he said. "Not this. Brahman is not this stone." He pointed at a piece of wood. "Neti." He continued in this manner until Lisa motioned him to stop.

And so on, with Krishna explaining all the principles of Hinduism that I was presumably supposed to demonstrate familiarity with. I remembered none of it, so reading this paper was quite enlightening, as it were.

I don't recall the assignment for a file labeled "Build Your Own Religion". I'll speculate that at the end of the course, we were asked to construct a set of beliefs that a culture might develop. Whatever the expectation, I resorted to the power of fiction again and turned in this story:

One Who Dared To Question

[Note: It must be understood that words such as "spouse", "widow", and "All-Spirit" are merely the best English equivalents of terms which can be only roughly translated.]

In the beginning there was light and dark, sun and moon, earth and water, wind and rain, winter and summer, plants and animals.

There were people. They lived among the trees in huts made of branches and leaves. They drank water from the stream, gathered roots and berries, and hunted deer and rabbit with spears. They made tools from sticks and sharpened stones, cooked meat over open fires, and wore skins to keep warm in cold weather. They spoke to one another in words and drew pictures on stones.

Children were born and grew up in their parents' huts. They were taught the history and culture of the tribe by the widows. They learned from their parents and from the other parents how to gather, hunt, and cook. When children grew into men and women, they chose spouses and moved into huts with their partners. Soon, new children were born. Adults died, and sometimes children did, too. The tribe grew ever larger, and its members thanked the All-Spirit daily for their prosperity.

Owwoo was named for the sound the of the wolves howling at the full moon. She was born fourteen summers ago, at night, during a full moon. Owwoo's birth heralded good fortune for herself and for the tribe: each summertime birth foretold a more successful gathering season, and one born under the full moon was destined to bear many children. Owwoo began bleeding last fall, and her flow, too, coincided with the full moon, like that of her mother. Yes, said the widows to one another, Owwoo would bring times of much fertility to the tribe.

Now that Owwoo's body had changed, she was a woman, and it was time for her to move out of her parents' hut. Today was the day that she had decided to ask her closest friend Kaar to be her spouse. She had played with Kaar since they were very young, and lately they had talked together often about their futures, the tribal customs, and the All-Spirit.

September 16, 2016

Double Revision

After a wonderfully hectic summer filled with great visits to and from family members, I'm happy to be immersed in writing again this month. I'm enjoying having plenty of uninterrupted time to write, and I'm excited about moving forward on projects with some new goals and motivations.

Recently I received some very helpful advice and encouragement about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and that's inspired me to embark on yet another revision. The focus of my previous revision was shortening the manuscript, and I cut over 20% while keeping the plot more or less the same. This time, I have suggestions and ideas about improving some parts of the story that aren't as strong as the rest. I'm planning to add new elements and remove others that aren't working, ideally while keeping the length about the same, which I'm sure will require further use of the compactness techniques I relied on last time.

I started off by rereading the manuscript, which I hadn't really looked at in more than a year. As always happens after time away, I saw plenty I wanted to change, but I was heartened by how much of the novel I was happy with. Before the last revision, my reread of the previous draft put me to sleep at points and left me wondering if gremlins had rewritten my sentences for incoherency. It was an enormous relief to not have a repeat of that experience and to confirm I'm actually making the book better with each edit. I was also pleased to notice that some of my thoughts about improving sentences and paragraphs came out of what I learned from the writing and critique in the class I just took.

I'm now on the next step of revision, the planning stage. I've written before (while in the middle of a still earlier, quite lengthy revision) about the value of planning and the danger it can morph into procrastination. I think I'm doing okay at the moment. I'm outlining the changes I want to make and trying to figure out the best options for the story. Some of my notes are lists of pros and cons for different plot directions. Some include comments like "but is it all just too ridiculously melodramatic?" and "this needs to conclude whatever the conclusion turns out to be". It's a process. I'm making good headway, and the plan is gradually coming together.

I don't think I've blogged at all about the writing software Scrivener, which I began using a couple of years ago, I believe when I was preparing for the previous revision. It's a powerful application with a lot of features, and I'm starting to use more of these than I had before, though nowhere near all of them. Maybe later I'll write about my Scrivener techniques, but for now, here's a screenshot from my revision planning:

September 1, 2016

August Reading Recap

I got the pleasant surprise of reading all my remaining anticipated reads of the season last month, even though one wasn't supposed to be released for a couple more weeks, because Oprah picked THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for her book club. I was also pleased, but not surprised, to find that these anticipated books were all excellent!

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia: Reshma Kapoor publishes an op-ed about her Silicon Valley high school that catches the notice of a literary agent, who asks if she's thought of writing a novel. Realizing a book deal would look amazing on college applications, Reshma replies to say she's almost finished a young adult novel. In fact, she hasn't started or even imagined writing a book, and she considers fiction a waste of time that could be spent studying, but she'll do anything to gain admission to Stanford. Reshma begins writing her novel, and to keep things simple, she makes herself the protagonist. Since her life of constant studying won't produce a good story, she decides to win friends, find a boyfriend, and undergo a transformation to complete her character arc. None of this goes as smoothly as anticipated, but Reshma is skilled at manipulating people to get ahead. When circumstances at school threaten her chances at Stanford, she incorporates the obstacles into her plot and sets out to overcome them by doing whatever it takes.

Reshma is a fascinating and infuriating character. She recognizes that she's not a nice, good, or kind person, but she doesn't have the self-awareness to realize that she's not always in the right. The shameless way she maneuvers and connives through the world is a propulsive force that kept me reading with gasps and laughter. Reshma's insecurity and anxiety occasionally broke through and allowed me to feel sorry for her, but I appreciated how much Kanakia was willing to make the character despicable.

The meta structure of this novel is a tricky conceit, and I can imagine many ways it might have gone wrong instead of succeeding as cleverly as it does in ENTER TITLE HERE. So much about this book is original and unexpected, and all of it is well-written and compelling. As a bonus, the hardcover looks great, with an eye-catching cover and another hiding beneath the dust jacket. I recommend picking up a copy!

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is mesmerizing in several ways. The story of Cora's escape from slavery on a Georgia plantation is packed with danger, and the suspense of the plot kept me engrossed. Whitehead draws the reader in with sentences that are perfectly crafted but not showy: "George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire." Most powerfully, the world of the story blends the harsh reality of pre-Civil War America with invented elements presented with such authority that I frequently double-checked the facts of history.

The novel's core departure is the underground railroad itself, an actual system of trains operating in tunnels hidden beneath the ground. The railroad plays a smaller role in the story than I expected but establishes the concept of the not-quite-real. In each U.S. state that Cora visits on her journey out of slavery, she encounters a different form of oppression. While most of these societal practices and policies didn't literally exist as portrayed, they depict truths about the racism of our nation's past and present.

The nature of the subject matter means this book is not a pleasant or easy read, but I'm glad I spent time within its pages. This is a story that will stay with me.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a clever premise, fully develops a world in which this intriguing idea can exist, and sends great characters on a thrilling, suspenseful adventure through that world. In other words, the novel delivers everything I've come to expect from Kowal's writing.

Ginger is an American medium working with the British Army during World War I as part of the women-run Spirit Corps, a crucial branch of military intelligence. She and the other mediums take reports from soldiers who have just died in battle. It's exhausting, risky work, made more difficult by the army's sexist policies and attitudes. When the spirit program works correctly, ghosts are able to serve their country a final time by providing information about enemy positions that can be sent to the battlefield immediately. Unfortunately, the Germans are starting to figure out how the Spirit Corps operates, and they're doing all they can to sabotage the program. Ginger, her colleagues, and everything they've worked for are in danger unless she can discover the traitor who's passing secrets to the enemy.

Since this is a book about World War I, with an explicit focus on ghosts, there's a lot of death and sadness, and I teared up during the majority of the chapters. The tragedy is balanced out by the gripping mystery and fast-paced adventure, plus well-placed moments of humor and levity, so this ends up being pretty fun for a war story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood reports for The Guardian about an academic's discovery of significant differences between the US and UK versions of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS: "Mitchell himself explains the reasons for the discrepancies in an interview quoted in Eve's paper: they occurred because the manuscript of Cloud Atlas sat unedited for around three months in the US, after an editor there left Random House. Meanwhile in the UK, Mitchell and his editor and copy editor worked on the manuscript, but the changes were not passed on to the US." The paper by Martin Paul Eve is long but fascinating.

August 16, 2016

A Very Minimalistic Play

It's time to move ahead in our journey through my childhood writing, so I braved my next teenage Steno notebook (#4, for those keeping track). As I read through its pages, many entries made me laugh, and even more provoked cringes. One piece of writing stood out by causing the most of both reactions.

In addition to its other exceptional qualities, this work is noteworthy because it's written as a play. When I started writing creatively in my free time during high school, one of my first efforts was a short play, but I only experimented with the format once or twice more before the piece we'll consider today. I frequently attended theater at the time, both school and professional productions, and I auditioned for every school play, though I was rarely cast, so it's no wonder I had an interest in playwriting.

Like most of my adolescent works, this one is unfinished, exhibiting my usual struggle with plot, so prepare to be left hanging. As you'll see, I put a lot of thought (a lot of thought) into elements that in retrospect weren't the most important to focus on:

(This is a very minimalistic play. What else can you expect from a play that consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation? Consequently, the set, props, and lighting are of little importance. The play takes place in CAROL's college dorm room. All that is required are some books, notebooks, a bag of pretzels, a can of soda, some other random clutter, and of course, the all important telephone. To eliminate the need for furniture or walls, the stage can simply be darkened, and CAROL may sit center stage in the light of a large spot. Make sure the light is not too bright or harsh, as the audience needs to look at it for the entire play. Another note concerning comfort: Be sure the telephone can be comfortably held for a long period of time. A shoulder rest which attaches to the handpiece may be used, if desired.

What is important in this play is that the audience be able to follow CAROL and NICK's conversation. The actress playing CAROL should determine exactly what NICK is saying at each pause and wait the correct length of time before speaking again. Small changes may be made in the lines as the actress or director sees fit, in order to aid in comprehension or to sound more natural.

There are few stage directions. The actress may do whatever seems natural while talking on the phone: sit up, lie down, eat, drink, doodle, do leg lifts, etc. These actions should be spontaneous and unplanned.

August 5, 2016

July Reading Recap

Last month, I happily devoured my first two anticipated summer reads, plus a release from earlier in the year.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters imagines a version of US history in which Congress passed the proposed Crittenden Compromise, guaranteeing the right to permanently practice slavery in states where it was already legal. The story takes place in a present day where slavery persists in four southern states. Elsewhere in America, the ramifications of slavery affect the lives of black citizens even more strongly than in our own reality.

Victor, who grew up enslaved, works undercover as a bounty hunter for the US Marshals Service, which has the responsibility to track down any "person bound to labor" who escapes to freedom. The job fills him with constant self-loathing, but he's very good at it. His latest case brings him to Indianapolis in search of a young man smuggled out of a plantation by the Underground Airlines (a metaphorically named movement: "Only very rarely is there a real plane involved.") Victor has to find the man before the Airlines gets him to Canada, but the further he investigates, the more unusual the details of the case become.

The conflicts inherent in Victor's life make him a fascinating protagonist, and each element of his character is well-developed and specific. I was glad to have him as my guide through the book's twisty plot and horrifying world. As with the excellent Last Policeman series, what most impressed me about this novel is how carefully Winters thought out every aspect of the premise. He's constructed a complete alternate history for the United States and its foreign relations, applied modern technology to the practice of slavery, and considered how systematic and individual racism perpetuates inequality. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an exciting mystery that grows ever more complicated and harrowing as the story progresses, but what kept me most enthralled was my desire to learn more about Victor and his America.

JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera: When Juliet Palante reads the work of feminist author Harlowe Brisbane, it rocks her world. Juliet writes to Harlowe and scores a summer internship working out of the author's home in Portland, Oregon. It's the farthest Juliet has ever been from the Bronx, and she's excited and nervous about spending the summer with a white hippie writer in a white hippie town, far from her Puerto Rican family and the college girlfriend she's been afraid to tell them about. At the goodbye dinner before she leaves for Portland, Juliet comes out to her family, and the reactions are only the first surprises in what will be a wild, emotional summer.

This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a queer brown girl, and it pulled me in right from the start. Throughout the novel, I was caught up in all the raw emotions Juliet experiences, from joy to heartbreak, and I enjoyed her funny, opinionated commentary on the world and people she encounters. Juliet's summer exposes her to a wide range of approaches to feminism and identity. I was right there with her on that journey, having my mind opened and struggling against the ways white feminism excludes women of color.

While the writing is rough in places and the narrative doesn't always flow well, there is so much to love in this book, and I'm glad Juliet's story is out there.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown: Madeleine is suffocating in a loveless marriage, longing for the life of painting she gave up for her controlling husband. After the couple has a terrible argument, Madeleine returns to her small southern hometown and her mother, another controlling and critical figure in Madeleine's life. While she dreams of an escape from the crushing expectations of other people, Madeleine finds a box of diaries kept by her grandmother as a young woman. In their pages, she discovers that Margie struggled with an overbearing mother of her own and wanted to write rather than get married. In 1924, Margie travels to Europe as a chaperone for a younger cousin, and what she experiences in Paris changes her life.

I loved getting to know the two protagonists of this novel. Both are artists who don't conform to the roles demanded by their high society families, and I wanted to see them succeed in breaking free. Brown does an excellent job with the settings in this novel, delightfully skewering the culture of debutante balls and ladies association meetings and vividly presenting the energy of 1920s Paris. I was hoping for a bit more from the story, because despite the two separate timelines, not a lot happens. Still, this was an engaging read that kept me well entertained while traveling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cait Etherington reveals The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries: "In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read."

July 21, 2016

Mornings and The Open Road

At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.

As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.

More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.

So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.

The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.

Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.

Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.

Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.


Her first memory:

There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"

Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.

Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.

Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.

Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.

July 15, 2016

Classing Update

A couple of days after I posted about having no ideas for the second story I had to submit for class, I found a seed that gradually grew into a viable premise. Much of the concept was vague when I started drafting, and the lack of a plan for the end made the writing process especially harrowing. I did figure out a conclusion before I had to write it, and after several frantic days of work, I completed a story I'm quite pleased with.

I might be getting the hang of this short story thing. I still have novel ideas churning in my head, and I want to focus on those soon, but it's certainly satisfying to create something that can be finished in a few days or weeks. I hope I can continue to generate ideas for stories without the pressure of a class deadline.

Even before this class, I've been inspired to return to short story writing by my friend Christopher Gronlund, who like me, has put most of his time into novels for many years but recently set himself a short fiction challenge. He produces a monthly podcast, Not About Lumberjacks, in which he presents one of his short stories. Some are older pieces, but the project has gotten him writing a lot of new stuff as well. I especially enjoyed listening to his latest release, "Standstill", a sad and beautiful story about a couple faced with the problem of time.

I'm not a podcaster, but I would like to get some of my stories out into the world. The class is wrapping up now with a final week about the publication process. I intend to use what I learned in class to revise my new stories, plus some others languishing on my computer, and then I'm going to try submitting to literary magazines.

I've only made one tiny attempt at story publication before, because it's another time-consuming avenue for rejection on top of the agent querying I'm already doing. But this week I received such a kind and encouraging rejection for my novel that I'm actually looking forward to collecting more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Katie McLain reports that Librarians Don't Read All Day and tells us what they actually do: "When I'm at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk."

July 5, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2016

This season brings the publication of five books I've been anticipating for quite some time. I can't wait to finally get to read these new novels!

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters (July 5): I adored Winters's THE LAST POLICEMAN and its sequels, a trilogy about a New Hampshire detective who's still intent on solving crimes even though the earth will be obliterated by an asteroid in a few months. The new book is an alternate history, set in a present-day America where the Civil War never occurred and slavery is still practiced in four states. I'm fascinated by the premise, and I'm sure the story will deliver more horrifying worldbuilding, great characters, and gripping mysteries.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's debut was a wonderful story about a family of Shakespeare fans, THE WEIRD SISTERS. I've had the chance to meet Eleanor a couple of times to talk about writing, and I was thrilled to learn that she has a second novel coming out. THE LIGHT OF PARIS is another family drama, this time about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage who finds the diary her grandmother kept during a summer in Jazz Age Paris. I'm looking forward to lots of family secrets and historical detail.

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August 2): I know Rahul from Bay Area writing circles, and through his blog, I've been following his journey to publication. The novel sounds like a lot of fun: The overachieving main character decides she can improve her chances of getting into a top university if she lands a book deal, so she somehow obtains a literary agent and then sets out to write a novel. The whole plan goes wrong in a way that I'm confident will be both smart and hilarious.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 16): I'm a big fan of Kowal's Glamourist Histories, a series that concluded last year after five amazing books set in the Regency period, but with magic. This new novel, which will potentially launch another series, takes place during World War I and features a medium who contributes to the war effort through her work with the Spirit Corps, which gathers intelligence from soldiers who die in battle. Kowal writes excellent characters and plots, and she never shies away from facing difficult realities in her fantastical stories, so I'm expecting great things from this book.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (September 13): I've read and enjoyed two of Whitehead's strange and beautiful novels, THE INTUITIONIST (my review) and ZONE ONE (review). His next book has been getting a ton of buzz. The story follows characters escaping from slavery, and it's alternate history of a subtler type than the Ben Winters book at the start of my list. Whitehead sets his novel in the real pre-Civil War South, but the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad of secret tracks, tunnels, and stops. I'm very intrigued by the descriptions I've heard, and I'm eagerly awaiting the book's release.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Kim Liao recommends aiming for 100 Rejections A Year: "My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer--or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious."