August 30, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I bought MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson after a friend read it and then told me over and over that she thought I'd really like it.

Usually this is what happens when I get a book recommendation: I say, "Oh, yes, I've been wanting to read that" or "Oh, I haven't heard of that, it sounds interesting" (the case in this situation). I dutifully add the title to the infinitely long list of books I want to read. A year later, the recommender asks if I ever read that book. I didn't. I sheepishly explain about the size of my list. I don't explain that I never actually read the books on the list. The books I read are ones that somebody hands me, or that some particular whim convinces me I must read immediately, or that I hear about right before I decide there's a compelling excuse to make a book purchase despite the hundreds of books on my shelf that I've never read. It's all a bit of a problem.

Several previous recommendations from this particular friend have gone unheeded in this way, and MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was similarly destined for the black hole of the list, except it happened that the third or fourth time my friend brought up the book, I was about to go on a trip. And going on a trip is one of the compelling excuses to buy a book. Never mind the crisp, newly purchased books still left unread from my last trip. This was a perfect opportunity to make my first Kindle purchase and try reading a book entirely on my phone. (The last ebook was free and read mostly on my computer, you see.)

The small screen reading experience was so convenient that I'm deciding what ebook I'm going to buy next, and MAJOR PETTIGREW was so much fun that I can't wait for Helen Simonson to put out another book. My friend's recommendation was right on.

The novel's protagonist, the retired, widowed Major Pettigrew, lives in a small English village where everyone knows each other's business. When he starts a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widow who runs the village shop, everybody around the Major lets it be known that they consider her an inappropriate companion due to her class and race. There's much talk of propriety among the Major's insufferable family members and so-called friends, but he's the only one operating with impeccable manners and morals at all times.

The stakes start small, with a disagreement over a family heirloom, but in time the Major gets caught up in a series of larger battles with increasingly serious consequences. Meanwhile, his friendship with Mrs. Ali becomes both more important and more complicated.

I enjoyed the way MAJOR PETTIGREW built gradually and with a subtlety that matches the Major's personality. The book and its characters are very funny, but in a subdued way. The tone and humor reminded me of Mark Haddon's A SPOT OF BOTHER, though that was a much darker comedy than this one. They're both great books. You should add them to your list.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller presents A reader's advice to writers: "I can tell you why I keep reading, and why I don't, why I recommend one book to my fellow readers, but not another."

→ Mary Jaksch at Write to Done advises adding some "weird" to make your writing memorable.

August 26, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

→ Assured my family members repeatedly that my novel isn't about them. Especially my brother, who has already "identified" himself in two of my previous manuscripts and who shares certain traits with a certain main character in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, which has only become more noticeable now that my brother has become a father. All of which is completely unintentional, because if anything, this character is the one modeled most closely on me, and it's not my fault that my brother and I are kind of alike. It's our parents' fault.

→ Discovered new similiarities between my family members and my characters everywhere I looked. Began to panic about whether my family would ever believe that the parallels were coincidental, or at least unconscious. Realized that while I've never paid much attention to "write what you know" as a piece of advice, "you write what you know" may be an inevitable curse.

→ Research. Mostly in the form of observing the behavior of the various kid family members encountered on my travels, with the aim of better writing the children in my novel at their different ages. Especially infancy. Rest assured that I would have been just as attentive toward my newborn nephew and inquisitive about his habits if I didn't have babies to write about.

→ Watched my father at work in his recording studio doing pitch correction on a vocal track until every single word sounded perfect. "That seems so agonizing," I thought. "I would never have the patience for that." Then it occurred to me that I'd just spent a week polishing a chapter until every single word was perfect.

→ Unearthed a box of stories I wrote in elementary and middle school, including a thick folder from eighth grade containing multiple drafts and worksheets on the revision process. I guarantee you'll be hearing more about this.

→ Answered "What's going on with your writing?" and "What's your novel about?" lots and lots of times. Still not as good at fielding these questions as I think I should be. Did not resort to responding with, "It's about you, okay?" (Because it's not.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Maggie Jamison offers fantastic advice about the exact issue I've been struggling with: "How do you create a character who suffers immensely, but who doesn’t sound whiny to the reader?" (Thanks, writerjenn!)

→ Bryan Russell at the Alchemy of Writing reminds writers to stay open to change when revising.

August 25, 2010

Back From Reality

I spent two weeks immersed in a wonderful, relaxing vacation. After this came two days of sitting around my house in a post-travel haze. At the beginning of the trip, I blogged about how returning to my novel reminded me what it's like to get lost in fiction. It turns out that long exposure to reality, especially the carefree vacation form of reality, also leaves me dazed and confused: "Oh, I have a novel? A blog? I'm a writer? I'm supposed to be writing something now?" So, no, I haven't really done anything since getting home, other than catching up on the many blogs I follow.

Instead of staring at the internet, I should be contemplating the Secrets Chart and deciding how I'm going to reconstruct THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE. Or perhaps the situation calls for moving right on to Chapter 2 and reminding myself that I actually enjoy this fiction thing.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sean Di Lizio chronicles the experience of participating in the International 3-Day Novel Contest.

→ K.M. Weiland shares one of my favorite pieces of writing advice: Skip The Boring Parts. (Serendipitously, I cover this topic in my upcoming Writecraft column.)

→ Dan Wilbur helps you judge a book (snarkily) by its cover with Better Book Titles. My favorites are this one and this one. (Thanks, GalleyCat!)

August 17, 2010


Remember that contest submission I was preparing for the East of Eden Writers Conference? Well, the conference -- and its contest -- have been canceled. Not enough people registered to make it economically feasible to put on the event, and on top of that, the venue closed.

I'm disappointed. I'm sure the members of my writing club who spent the past year organizing the conference are even more disappointed. They've been working hard. It would have been a good conference, and it's a shame things didn't work out.

There tends to be a lot of disappointment along the path to success in writing. Last year I collected a large number of rejection letters. At first it was cool simply to be rejected, because it made me feel like a legitimate writer, but after a while I became impatient for the happy ending to my struggle. After a longer while, I understood that my novel and I weren't yet good enough. It was disappointing and demoralizing and no fun at all.

But I got past it. I can't figure out how to say the next part without sounding like a motivational speaker, so I'll just go with it: Staying on that path to success requires persistence, resilience, and a weird combination of honest self-assessment and overconfidence. Instead of quitting, I worked on another novel and focused on becoming a better writer. Disappointment isn't fatal.

I hope the conference planners can console themselves with knowing how many valuable skills and connections they gained while organizing. And I hope they are able to offer some type of smaller event or contest this fall, as has been hinted. I know that my own work on my first chapter and synopsis was definitely not wasted. I'm going to need those same pages to be as strong as possible when I next start collecting rejection letters -- and maybe this time a happy ending.

August 12, 2010

Seeking Feedback

This post first appeared as the August Writecraft column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


Critique, like revision, is an essential part of the writing process and one that many writers dread. It's scary to share your carefully crafted words for the explicit purpose of learning what's wrong with them. But there's no way around it: if you dream of the day when thousands of people will read your book, you have to start by letting a few people read your manuscript.

It's not trivial to find readers who can give you honest, useful feedback. Family and friends may be eager to read your work in progress, but don't expect to hear more than a few (biased) compliments when they do. Most people, even frequent readers, don't have experience reacting with much more than an "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." You may be able to coax out a more detailed opinion with questioning, but when sharing with people close to you, it's often better to accept the ego boost gratefully and then look for real critique elsewhere.

Other writers are a natural choice for feedback. They're already accustomed to analyzing stories in great detail, and they understand that when you hand them a manuscript, it's not going to be as polished as a finished book. You can join a critique group or find a writing friend to trade manuscripts with one-on-one. An added benefit of mutual critique is that as you practice responding to the work of others, you'll get better at evaluating your own writing.

You may also know non-writers who have experience thinking critically about stories. Anyone in a book club is a good candidate. Or ask that friend with a book review blog or the one who has lots of opinions whenever you watch movies together. Remember that reading for critique and offering thoughtful comments takes time. If you won't be reciprocating the favor with a critique of your own, consider treating your reader to a meal while you discuss their feedback.

August 8, 2010

Diving Back In

Writing can suck you in deep. I'd almost forgotten.

I was very busy last week, and it was partly just having so much to do that led to an unplanned blogging hiatus. But it was also that I was primarily busy with revising Chapter 1 of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE for the East of Eden Writers Conference contest.

Though I've been doing lots of thinking and planning work for the novel over the past few months, there hasn't been any actual writing during that time. Last week, I dove back into the manuscript itself. I ripped apart paragraphs and threw out useless sentences and sent conversations off in new directions. Most of all, I reinhabited the characters to figure out what they were thinking, experiencing, and trying to say.

I believe it's that process of becoming the characters that makes writing so all-consuming. After intense writing sessions, I emerge a little bit uncertain of who and where I am, and definitely unclear on what season it is. Or I don't fully emerge at all. I appreciate how tolerant my loved ones are about my occasional (okay, frequent) lapses in attention when I'm deep into a story and the fictional people are more present for me than the real ones.

I've been reluctant to start the next round of revision because my expectations were more about finding it difficult than finding it enjoyable. Last week reminded me that while writing is difficult, as well as intense, it's also something I really like doing. Last week also demonstrated that my concern about not having time for both writing and blogging is legitimate. I deliberately started this blog during a non-writing period in the hope that I'd get into a groove I could sustain when I returned to writing. I'm still working on that.

For now, I'm on vacation, visiting family for two weeks. I've known for a while that when the trip was over, I'd start revising for real. I think I'm finally ready for it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Black looks at what Star Wars teaches us about character introductions.