December 20, 2013

End-of-the-Year Book Catchup

Before 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to catch up on book reviews, so I'm leaving you with my impressions of three books that have nothing in common except that I read them recently:

BLOOD, MARRIAGE, WINE AND GLITTER is S. Bear Bergman's third collection of personal essays, and like the first two, it offers a look at what's currently occupying his life and mind. These days, as the father of a preschooler, Bergman is thinking a lot about family, and the beautiful essays in this book tell all kinds of stories that celebrate all kinds of families. Bergman's perspective on family life is shaped by his experience with being trans, Jewish, an activist, and a hopeless romantic, but the essays address the universal experience of being a part of, and creating, a family.

These essays felt even more personal to me because Bear is a dear friend who I've known since I was 14 years old. I even had the odd and delightful experience of finding an appearance by my own family in the book, specifically the dogs of my childhood. The writing is tender and funny and brought tears to my eyes multiple times, and I think any reader will have the same moving experience.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See portrays what it was like to be a woman in nineteenth century China, and what it was like was not especially pleasant. The narrator, Lily, looks back at her life from an advanced age and recounts her story, a series of mostly painful events starting from her footbinding, an even more horrifying process than you probably imagined. This tradition is described with graphic thoroughness, and all the customs of life in that time and place are presented in careful detail. As with much historical fiction, quite a bit of time is spent explaining day-to-day life, but it's engrossing because it's so unfamiliar.

Lily grows up, is placed in an arranged marriage, and spends most of her life confined to upstairs women's rooms, all according to custom. What sets Lily apart from many other girls -- and what brings her great joy for much of her life -- is that she is selected to be matched with a laotong or "old same", a girl of the same age who is slated to become her lifelong best friend through a tradition not unlike marriage. Lily's relationship with her laotong, Snow Flower, is the focus of the story, and we learn right from the start that this too will end in pain.

I found all the period details fascinating, and the story was absorbing, though often troubling to read. Toward the end, the plot fell somewhat flat for me, but I still recommend this book to any interested reader.

→ In PALIMPSEST by Catherynne M. Valente, four strangers from our world meet in a fantastical city that first appears to them as a dream. Upon waking, the characters find their bodies marked with tattoo-like maps that depict a portion of the city, and they each have a longing to return. Gradually, the protagonists learn that the way back to Palimpsest is through having sex with others who share the mark. The novel follows the characters on their separate, often brutal, journeys in both worlds until eventually their paths converge.

The premise of a a world that requires sex as the gateway is an intriguing one, and the story does a pretty good job of exploring the problems this creates. The four main characters are well developed, each with a distinct motivation and set of obstacles that colors their attitude toward Palimpsest. They also each have a passion -- bookbinding, beekeeping, locksmithing, and trains -- and I enjoyed the discussions of these topics. I wasn't completely satisfied with the plot or the style of the novel, but overall it was an entertaining read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Moira Redmond at the Guardian Books Blog has a roundup of undergarments in literature: "There's never much mention of male underwear in literature, although the hideous Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate tells a young engaged woman: 'don't go wasting your money on underclothes ... I always borrow [her husband] Montdore's myself'."

December 17, 2013

Starting Philip K. Dick

Next up in my START HERE project is Philip K. Dick, another author I've long intended to try. The reading pathway for Dick, written by Steve Randolph, is more loosely structured than the previous ones. I chose two of the recommended novels to serve as my introduction to Dick's massive catalog.

→ I began with EYE IN THE SKY, which I would not actually recommend as a starting point, because it was only so-so.

The book opens with an accident at a particle accelerator that causes a tour group to fall into the beam. Despite the science-y premise, everything else that happens is more fantastical and absurd. When the accident victims regain consciousness, they find the world has changed in ways that are either terrible or terrific, depending on which character you ask. As the strange new world becomes more menacing, the characters have to figure out what's going on and how they can get back to the world they know.

I liked some of the plot ideas, though others didn't do much for me. The book is definitely more focused on plot than character -- the people in the story are fairly one-dimensional, and their actions often didn't make a ton of sense. It was a quick and reasonably entertaining read, but dated in both style and content.

→ I found THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE to be a far more interesting and better executed book. It's not flawless, and it's also very much a product of its time (it was published in 1962), but I do recommend it.

In this alternate history, Germany and Japan were the winners of World War II and divided up the United States. Most of the novel takes place in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America (the west coast), a relatively benevolent occupation in which whites have second-class status but are still mostly allowed to carry on with their lives and livelihoods. Things are less pleasant for non-Germans in the Nazi-controlled east.

The plot follows a number of characters of different backgrounds who are dealing with situations both political and personal. As the text jumps between the characters and we find out how their problems are interconnected, we get a good sense of how this world operates. I appreciated the way that the premise and facts of the world are revealed gradually, without ever requiring big chunks of exposition. On the other hand, I could have done without some of the large chunks of philosophy and social commentary.

On the whole, I found the story engrossing and the setting well-developed. I was dissatisfied by how the plot resolved, but that may have been because I'd been led to expect something else. After I read Matt Ruff's THE MIRAGE last year, I saw many reviews comparing it to this book. The two novels have parallels, but the stories are quite different.

What other Dick novels or stories should I read or avoid? I've bought THE PHILIP K. DICK READER, a collection of his short stories, and I intend to dip into it soon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the New York Times' Opinionator, Marie Myung-Ok Lee argues that the Internet is a welcome distraction: "While I still have epiphanic moments while staring out my window like a proper author, or am inspired by a long article in the New York Review of Books, I am just as often prompted by a random bit I've gleaned on a friend's Twitter feed as it speeds by, or the latest ha-ha list from BuzzFeed."

December 12, 2013

Life After Revision

I've had some questions about what I've been doing with myself after finally, finally reaching the end of revision. Now that all those years and drafts have resulted in a novel I'm really satisfied with, I'm occupied with a few different things:

Getting started on the querying process. I'm not going to be blogging about the details of my specific query-related activities, but I assure you that things are happening. The basic idea of the process is that an author sends a query letter (generally email at this point) to a literary agent, briefly describing her book and why this particular agent might be interested. The agent reads the query and potentially some sample pages, and if she is in fact interested, she requests the manuscript. Then when an agent and a book love each other very, very much... No, maybe that's something else. Anyway, connecting with an agent can be a lengthy undertaking, and it involves a lot of waiting, but I'm glad to be on the journey at last.

Chilling out. Hey, I've earned it, right? The end-of-the-year timing worked out nicely in that I feel quite comfortable about not getting started on any new writing projects until all the holidays are over with. I have a big list of random stuff to get done this month, and I'm gradually checking things off, but I'm also not getting too stressed about not being all that productive.

Reading. A large component of the chilling out has been compensating for all the reading I didn't have time for in November while I was so focused on revision. Last week I finished three books that I'd started weeks earlier, and there are a bunch more I want to read in the rest of this month. Several book-related posts are in the works.

Miscellaneous and sundry. Some of this has been boring real life tasks such as reporting for jury duty (I didn't get to do anything except sit in a waiting room for an hour) and having my teeth cleaned (no cavities). But I've also done some far more fun things, including offering feedback on a friend's story and shopping for books for my nephews.

Not revising. It's really kind of weird. I basically spend all day going, "Okay, wait, it's all right that I'm not working on my novel right now." I can't quite get myself to believe that I'm not procrastinating. I'll be happy to resume writing in January so that I can get back to avoiding it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Instead of releasing best-of lists this year, the NPR staff put together NPR's Book Concierge, a neat way to browse through 2013's great reads.

December 5, 2013

Starting Italo Calvino

I'm still gradually continuing through my START HERE project, and I was pleased that it gave me the push to finally read Italo Calvino, whose work I've long been curious about. I read and was delighted by two of the books on the reading pathway by Kit Steinkellner. I also tried a third and found it not to my taste, so I remain intrigued about Calvino's very wide range of styles.

IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER is a strange, meta novel from the opening sentence: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler." The first chapter introduces you, the reader, who buys the book and prepares to read. The second chapter is the purported first chapter of that book, but the following chapter returns to the reader, who discovers that due to a printing error, the rest of the book is missing. You go back to the store for a new copy and start reading that, but it turns out to be an entirely different story. Once again, just as it starts to get exciting, the text stops.

The novel proceeds in this fashion, with a series of unrelated first chapters that break off right as things become interesting, alternating with the story of the reader's increasingly bizarre quest to track down the continuations of the books. This may not sound as though it would make for a readable novel, and it's definitely a weird experience, but I found it compelling enough that I read the whole book in 48 hours. The story of the reader protagonist is fun and clever, the varied first chapters are intriguing, and throughout the novel are many great musings on books and reading.

COSMICOMICS is a collection of short stories all featuring the same narrator, though one who was present in an unspecified form at the birth of the universe as well as later living a more recognizable human life on Earth (some of that while the moon was close enough to be reached by a ladder). Also he was a dinosaur for a while: "about fifty million years, I'd say, and I don't regret it." Oh, and our narrator is named Qfwfq, which is typical of the character names in the book.

All of that might start to give you an idea of what these stories are like, but some of them are weirder than that. I liked this collection very much, but it's not going to be for everyone. Most of the stories have a connection to some real astronomical phenomenon, but portrayed in an absurd, tall-tale sort of way, so the ideal reader will be both interested in science and willing to see plausibility thrown out the window.

Many of these stories concern love (including one about Qfwfq's time as a mollusk), often with a love triangle or unrequited yearning. Long-standing rivalries are another common theme, which is perhaps to be expected among characters with infinite lives. This is quite a funny collection in its idiosyncratic way, although at moments it becomes serious. I was especially amused by two stories that are probably my favorites: In "The Light-Years", Qfwfq is seized with paranoia when he discovers that galaxies millions of light-years away are observing the actions he took millions of years in the past, and judging him for them. "How Much Shall We Bet?" involves some extremely long-term gambling. If these stories tickle you as well, I recommend the whole collection.

→ Before turning to COSMICOMICS, I started reading INVISIBLE CITIES, but I could quickly see it wasn't going to be for me, and I stopped after only about 20 pages. The book consists of short descriptions of cities, as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. The descriptions are more poetic and metaphorical than informational, and there didn't appear to be any plot to it at all, and none of that appealed to me. Lots of other people love the book, though, and if that includes you and you think I'm missing something, I'd be interested to hear about it and maybe give it another chance.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben Blatt at Slate performs a textual analysis of the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter series to find the most commonly used adjectives, adverbs, and sentences.

November 27, 2013

That Is All

At long last, the moment you've been waiting for: I am done revising!

Let's all take a moment to bask in that, shall we?

Now, I'm certainly not saying that there will never again be further changes to this novel, because that's not the way it works, but for now, I am finished. It's time to embark on the next step, which is to send this manuscript out into the world and see how it goes. Specifically, I'm going to start querying agents.

That next step is another doozy, and it will be another long process, but it will be a different one, and I'm very thankful for that. I'm thankful for the support you've all given me, and I'm thankful that now I get to really enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with my family and friends.

More on all of this in December. I hope that all of you get to enjoy a wonderful little break of your own in the next few days, however you celebrate!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ I was intrigued by this list of 50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers assembled by Emily Temple at Flavorwire: "some absurdly long, some notoriously difficult, some with intense or upsetting subject matter but blindingly brilliant prose, some packed into formations that require extra effort or mind expansion..."

November 22, 2013

Nearly There

Since my last revision update two weeks ago, progress continues apace. There have been no more repetitive conversations about ice cream, though I did find that frequently, my characters experience intense situations as a "frozen moment", "some frozen span of time", or a "frozen silence". Which isn't too far from frozen dairy confections.

In this revision pass, I've noticed a theme to the different issues that needed fixing at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. (This is separate from my previous tripartite classification of easy, medium, and hard problems.) For the beginning chapters, I had a lot of notes about explanations and character traits that I had to better establish by adding details and bits of backstory. The middle of the novel mostly required shortening, and that's not too surprising, given that "sagging middle" is a common manuscript diagnosis. Now I'm deep into the final section, and for these end chapters, the common issue is that certain things don't tie up as plausibly or satisfyingly as I hoped. I would venture to guess that a great many revisions could be structured around these same types of beginning, middle, and end fixes.

I mentioned on Twitter that since I'm going to end November with significantly fewer words than I started, it's like I'm doing a reverse NaNoWriMo. My friend Lilly says this means I've leveled up, and I love that way of looking at it. However, I have also spent the month often feeling envious of my NaNoing buddies as they experience the excitement and thrilling terror that comes with writing a new story. I'm looking forward to the time when I'll be able to work on something other than this novel and embrace the messiness of a first draft again. But in the meantime, to everyone doing NaNo: Good luck on the final week, and I salute you!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Julie Wu looks at What Writing the Second Novel Is Really Like: "A couple of writers compare writing novel two to having amnesia--'a rare form...where you remember everything except how to do your job,' says Julie Kilber. Amy Nathan describes it as 'seeing someone you are sure you know well, but not remembering her name, where you met her, or what your connection is to her. And then, trying to figure out how to say hello without revealing any of that to anyone.'"

November 18, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I adored WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler, and I think you should read it. I can tell you why I loved it, but I can't tell you what it's really about, as I'll explain.

The novel is narrated by Rosemary, who is funny, sarcastic, thoughtful, and well aware that she has spent much of her life being too clever for her own good. If you like stories with strong and wonderful narrative voices, that alone should sell you on this book. I would be happy to read along while Rosemary told me anything.

She takes her father's storytelling advice to "Skip the beginning. Start in the middle" so she starts the story with an incident in college that brought a new friend, and chaos, into her life. But it's the beginning of Rosemary's life that sets her apart, and though she soon offers some glimpses into her childhood, it takes a while until she really starts opening up about the truth of her family. The disjointed chronology of the narrative is used to good effect, and I enjoyed the way the story takes on the unreliable nature of memory.

At the core, this is a family story, and it's one with a secret, but not any of the family secrets you've read about before. I hope that will intrigue you enough to dive in without learning anything else. When I began reading, I already knew the book's big secret, and I think it would have been cooler to have the unspoiled reading experience. On the other hand, one reason I picked up the book was that the premise was so enticing, and I haven't told you what it is yet. So I'll understand if you need more convincing. You can find plenty of other enthusiastic reviews that reveal information the author holds back until one-quarter of the way through the book, and I won't blame you if you want to look those up. But my recommendation is that you simply start reading WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES immediately.

When I attended the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop this summer, one of the highlights was the time I spent with Karen Joy Fowler, who is wonderful as both a teacher and a dinner companion. This is the first of her books that I've read, and I'm eager to read all the varied others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ S. Bear Bergman examines expectations about writerly lives and reflects on doing it wrong: "When prompted to account for my time as a writer I typically balk, mumble, and change the subject in order to avoid talking frankly about the bare and worrisome facts: I do not keep a journal of any sort, unless you count tweeting. I do not write first thing in the morning, dipping my handmade pen into the fresh well of my settled thoughts -- I am dragged to wakefulness most days by a three-year-old who wakes up like he was shot out of a cannon, and his morning requirements stir that well pretty good."

November 7, 2013

Full Speed Ahead

Things have been going well on the revision front this past month. I'm still finding that relatively small changes are fixing my hard scary problems, so I'm zooming right along on this millionth pass through the manuscript. Well, zooming compared to the speed of any of my other passes, so at least that's something.

As part of the process, I'm once again making a bit of headway on shortening my too-long novel. I've cut or abbreviated a bunch of scenes that don't serve enough of a purpose or that seemed to drag while I was reading aloud. And I'm yet again trimming unnecessary words and sentences all over the place, because apparently I didn't get them all last time.

Or maybe someone has been adding words to my manuscript while I'm not looking. Otherwise how could I have let the following piece of dialogue survive to this point?:

"Tell Meredith I'm ready for my ice cream."

"You want ice cream?"

"Meredith always brings me ice cream."

I returned to the kitchen. "He says you always bring him ice cream?"

I was aware that my characters were possibly a little too obsessed with ice cream, but this sounds like a comedy routine without a punchline.

That mischievous somebody is probably also responsible for the fact that the same unusual verbs keep appearing over and over again throughout the story. I've been tracking down occurrences of "crammed" and "gaped" this week. I also have my eye on the rather too popular activity of characters touching one other on the shoulder, which could lead to problems, namely, reader boredom.

In my ongoing angst over paragraph breaks, I've now become concerned that I have too many short paragraphs, and I've been merging some of these together. After long, painful periods of thought, of course. You see why this is all going so slowly?

But seriously, I'm zooming along over here. It's like I might even be done someday.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The New York Times asked a variety of authors to comment on how new technologies influence fiction: "This new place [the internet] needs to be studied; it needs geographers, anthropologists and economists. There’s a new visual and conceptual grammar -- just as we learned how to look at paintings, so too have we developed ways of looking and being in cyberspace," says Charles Yu. (Thanks, The Millions!)

October 29, 2013

Short Story Collections

During the earlier part of this year, I had a new habit of reading short stories most mornings while I ate breakfast. In April I posted about my favorites among the stories I'd read to that point. I was planning to make this a recurring quarterly feature.

As often happens with habits, this one fell by the wayside not long after when I decided that the morning short story reading didn't fit well into my schedule. I have been continuing to read a decent amount of short fiction this year, though, mostly in the form of recently published story collections.

→ The stories in Jessica Francis Kane's collection, THIS CLOSE, are about contemporary people in unexceptional settings, and they are fascinating. I aspire to write stories like this. Many of them have a quality I find most impressive and elusive: no huge event takes place, and yet the interactions of the characters as they deal with small issues make for a gripping read.

The first two stories in the collection, "Lucky Boy" and "American Lawn", especially demonstrate this feat. Both are about characters who find themselves trapped in awkward relationships with people who aren't quite friends. Their uncertainty over how to act is easily identifiable as a general human condition, but the stories are specific and carefully drawn.

Later stories are just as good but have at their core something bigger, such as death or a failing marriage. Of these, "Next In Line" stuck with me most. It's beautiful, but it's a heartbreaker.

I recommend this collection to anyone looking for literary short fiction that succeeds in telling a good story. I previously read Kane's debut novel, THE REPORT, and raved about it.

HALF AS HAPPY by Gregory Spatz is another collection focusing on familiar emotions and relationships between people. The stories tend toward the introspective, with many examples of characters mulling over their lives and past events and where they went wrong. This is the kind of story that tends to be depressing, but there were also great moments of humor throughout.

As with any collection, I liked some stories better than others. My favorites were the first and last in the book. "Any Landlord's Dream" is about a marriage faltering after a loss. In "String", a single bad decision impacts a set of strangers, altering the course of their lives. It happens that both these stories make good use of multiple points of view, which is probably one reason they appeal to me.

This was an interesting collection for me to read as a writer, because while the subject matter is the same sort of individual turmoil that I choose for my own stories, Spatz has a very different writing style than mine, featuring long, dense paragraphs crammed with details. This summer, Spatz was the workshop leader when my story was workshopped at Squaw Valley, and it was quite an honor to get feedback from this accomplished writer. Now in studying his stories, I'm learning even more.

I've already posted recommendations of two other new collection this year:

TENTH OF DECEMBER is the much-hyped collection by George Saunders, and it deserves the attention. The worlds in Saunders's strange and darkly funny stories are very different from those in the two collections above, which are grounded in familiar reality. This will be a selling point for some readers and a turn-off for others -- the flavor of weirdness appealed to me immensely. Read my full review.

→ I can't be fully unbiased about THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE by B.C. Edwards because the author is an old friend, but I hope you will trust me when I say this collection is fabulous, and even when I suggest that fans of Saunders might want to check out Edwards. Some of the stories in THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE are about apocalypse, others are about scenarios as mundane as a family reunion, but all are fascinating. Read my full review.

As a final recommendation, I'd like to suggest that those interested in writing short stories check out this great podcast conversation between four short story writers talking about the craft, presented by Litquake's Lit Cast.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brad Leithauser examines the pet words of famous writers: "I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you'd never actually read--if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably."

October 24, 2013

It's The Little Things

Earlier this month I wrote about the three levels of problems that I'm addressing in my manuscript right now. I was most scared by the hard problems, such as ongoing character conflicts that my audience found unconvincing. These large-scale issues don't have a single source or a clear solution, and I was worried about how long they would take to fix.

I've been working on these problems for the past few weeks, and while it would still be lovely if I didn't have any huge issues to deal with, I've been pleased to find how well big problems can be addressed with little changes. When it's not really clear why a character keeps feeling or acting a particular, plot-important way, I don't have to rip apart and restructure the entire plot. Instead, I'm finding that small tweaks to the thoughts and behavior in each relevant scene goes a long way toward altering the overall perception of what's going on with that character. I'm accomplishing what I need to by adding and editing sentences or paragraphs, not by throwing out pages at a time. Sometimes even changing a word or two is all it takes to appropriately alter the tone.

I have a recurring problem with portraying characters in love, which I wrote about some years back (still a useful post, if I do say so myself). Once again I was faced with readers who pointed out, "He keeps telling us they're in love, but nothing is showing us they are, because we only see them fighting." A story is made out of conflict, so it's easy to gloss over the happy parts, and I do that too much, particularly when it comes to characters starting a relationship. I was concerned about needing to find room and reasons for long, lovey-dovey scenes. But when I got into analyzing the problem, I determined that half a page of the characters joking around happily was sufficient to change the balance of the chapter and make them not seem to merely fight all the time.

One part of the plot relies on the reader understanding that while a father and son don't get along, they had a good relationship when the son was growing up. While I was reading my manuscript aloud to my familial literary advisory board, I learned that my audience wasn't picking up on the backstory of the happy childhood. That wasn't surprising, because I noticed that I'd neglected to establish it much at all. I wasn't sure where and how I was going to show the situation of the past without adding a bunch of flashbacks to a novel that's already too long. But it turns out that a few sentences here and there mentioning happier times can plant the idea in the reader's mind so the scenario will be interpreted correctly.

Or at least that's what I hope. I won't be certain any of these fixes are working until I've run the new draft by some other readers. What I learned from the first set was that in some areas I was being far too subtle, while other ideas were beaten into the reader's head with way too much repetition, so I may not be the best judge of how the message is getting across. For now, though, I'm operating on the belief that these relatively small fixes are making a big difference. It's certainly making this round of revisions less scary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michael David Lukas writes at the Opinionator about When the News and the Novel Collide: "Fiction is supposed to reflect reality, in some way or another. But reality is constantly changing. It can take years to write a novel and in those years, history marches on. Wars break out and governments are toppled, perceptions shift and new gadgets are invented."

October 11, 2013

A Writer's Search History

For ages, I've been meaning to share a selection of the odd web searches I've conducted during the creation of this novel. This short list only scratches the surface (and it leaves out the huge number of less weird research queries). Maybe later on I'll go back further into my Google search history and bring you some more examples.

→ "concussion allowed to sleep" - Turns out it's not really true that you have to stay awake if you have a concussion, though it might be a good idea for someone to prod you periodically.

→ "what does vodka smell like" - It seemed particularly silly to search the internet for an answer when I could have done firsthand research by walking downstairs and opening the liquor cabinet. I was lazy. And as with a great many of my research queries, after I spent a while looking for information, I ended up changing the scene so it was no longer needed.

→ "woman crying" - I looked for a video of someone crying (of course there are thousands of these) so that I could play it on my computer, leave the room, close the door, and perform a test of how well it could be heard from the next room.

→ "bulldozer video" followed by "bulldozer rev engine" followed by "verbs for engine sounds" - I was trying to describe the sound accurately. I ended up with "a bulldozer roared to life", which is completely unoriginal, but I'm terrible at this sort of thing.

→ "stacking blocks one year old" - Yes, kids can at that age. This is only one of hundreds of searches related to child development, parenting, and childbirth. It was still a lot easier than firsthand research.

→ "history of car air conditioning" - It grew in popularity during the 1960s - and "air conditioning movie theaters history" - That's been common for longer.

→ "motel curtains" - As I typed this query into the search box, it struck me as combining the bizarre with the uninteresting. I scanned the image search results for a moment and then decided that I wasn't going to use the concept in the story anyway.

→ "red sox schedule 1995" - Here's a case where I might be going overboard on attention to detail, though at least this was very quick to look into, unlike some other questions I obsess over. In a scene set during Labor Day weekend of 1995, I mention that a character might have attended a Red Sox game if he'd stayed in Boston rather than going to San Jose to get the action of the novel going. If the Sox weren't actually home that weekend, would anyone have noticed or cared? Well, it's okay, because they were.

→ "when to make thanksgiving pie" - The day before is fine. I could have asked my in-house consultant, but again, I'm lazy.

→ "how much do employees make in ipos" - Enough.

(Note: It seems like this post should be tagged "querying", but that means something else.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins offers a 12-step program for finding structure in a messy draft: "You recognize that something is missing. Just to be old-fashioned, let's call it structure. Bones. Whatever. Yes, you've written something moving and lovely and it's a work you care about. But still. When you look at it, you are reminded of a jellyfish."

October 4, 2013

Defining the Problems

Last week I reported on my big step of finishing a draft, reading it aloud to my trusted loved ones, and trying not to fall into a pit of despair at the realization that I still have more work ahead. I had a wonderful vacation to visit my far-away family members and not think too much about my novel. I returned home not exactly eager for more revision, but at least ready to face the next step.

Reading my novel to a (very patient) audience turned up three levels of problems that I need to address:

The easy problems are the sentence-level issues that I noted myself as I read aloud. Whenever I stumbled over a phrase (and I did this a lot), I underlined the tricky area, and it will be simple and satisfying to fix all these rough patches. Reading my work aloud led me to notice words that were repeated in close proximity or awkward combinations of sounds. Occasionally in a long dialogue I'd become confused about who was speaking, and of course anything that's confusing even to the author is a huge red flag. Spotting these easy problems didn't really involve the audience, though I think having listeners caused me to read more slowly and thoughtfully than when I read aloud to myself, which I do often and highly recommend to all writers.

Learning about the medium problems was what I most wanted to accomplish by reading to my familial literary advisory board. At the end of each chapter, I'd ask them for reactions, and sometimes there were specific parts that they were confused about or found implausible. These are issues that I couldn't spot on my own, because I have the scenes and justifications inside my head and already know what I mean by everything. I find this type of feedback the most rewarding part of receiving critique, because when a complaint has a clear, distinct source, it's never too much work to fix it, and afterwards I know I've made a worthwhile improvement. Also in the medium category are the scenes that felt too long once I read them aloud, a problem generally noted both by me and by my listeners.

The hard problems are the ones I hoped I wouldn't encounter, and the ones leaving me discouraged. I'm grateful to have such a perceptive audience at my disposal, and I wouldn't have read my manuscript to them if I didn't want to know what they thought, but some of what they thought is that there are still large-scale issues in my story, and I agree. These are problems like a failure to convincingly explain and portray the anger one character feels toward another throughout the novel. A criticism of that type can't be fixed by making changes to only a scene or two, and I'm often not even sure how to fix it. The hard problems are hard because addressing them requires significant work, and at the same time, they are the most important issues to deal with, because they have the greatest impact on the novel.

So, right now, I'm sorting out the logistics of dealing with these three levels of issues, and I'm starting to make progress on fixes. The hard problems are still scary, but I'm figuring out a way to deal with them while staying out of that pit of despair.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund speaks out In Praise of Slow Writing: "With time on my side, what may have been a surface scene just to move things along becomes something much deeper; when I take things slow, everything connects in ways that matter much more than if I were going for speed."

September 25, 2013


It's been a hectic month for me and my novel. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I read my entire manuscript aloud to my incredible panel of in-house consultants. As you might deduce, this means that I successfully wrestled my novel into a state where it was fit to be read in its entirety, so yay for that. It was a near thing, with a schedule that involved revising the end on the same day that I read aloud the end. All that rush means the fact of completion hasn't quite sunk in yet. And I don't even want to toss around the word "finished," because, well, yes, my manuscript still needs more work.

The best thing about reading my entire manuscript aloud to my familial literary advisory board is that it gave me the chance to hear how the words sound and the story flows, to gauge an audience's reactions in real time, and to get detailed feedback from readers on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

The worst thing about it is of course all those same things, because I learned which parts I have problems with myself, and even more crucially, what elements didn't work for other people. This knowledge is incredibly valuable and also a bit discouraging. I wanted to think that after a few small tweaks, my manuscript would be ready to go out into the world, but now I realize that more substantial work is going to be required.

I haven't yet figured out how much further revision is in store. At the moment, I'm on the vacation that served as a powerful deadline for the work I've just completed. The time away is giving me a chance to step back from the story and contemplate how I'll approach the problems when I return. I'll be back next week with more thoughts, but for now, I'm enjoying some down time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Eleanor Henderson writes in Poets & Writers about The Beauty of Backstory: "The world would be a bland place without backstory, and yet the story doesn't stop there. There are a thousand and one ways to use backstory in fiction--just as many ways as there are to manipulate time."

September 12, 2013

The Infinite Tides

The main character of THE INFINITE TIDES by Christian Kiefer is an astronaut and engineer who attains his life's goal when he boards the International Space Station, where he will install and test a component that he designed. But during Keith's months-long mission, a tragedy strikes his family back home. When he is finally able to return to Earth, he's confronted with an empty shell of his old life. Keith longs to be back in orbit, where he was fully occupied with his work and the happiest he'd ever been. Instead he's aimless for the first time, and what's left of his life keeps unraveling further.

As you might expect, this is a fairly depressing story overall, but it's full of moments that are amusing and even hilarious. Keith isn't great at interacting with people and would prefer to stay out of everyone else's way, but he meets several neighbors who drag him into their own complicated lives. The characters are all well developed and fascinating, especially Keith. I really felt for him as he struggles with grief and anger and a desire to lose himself again in his love of numbers, the only things that make sense.

This is a character-focused novel in which not a lot happens, but that's by design. Christian Kiefer was one of the staff members at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him talk about his book. He described it this way (paraphrased from my notes): "It's about a man living in a cul de sac, and almost the whole book takes place in his empty house in an unfinished neighborhood, or in Starbucks. Previously he was orbiting Earth, going in circles. Every day is the same, like in the movie Groundhog Day. He doesn't know what to do with himself every day. But other things are poking in, more and more as the story goes along, and by the end he is longing for the days when he had nothing to do."

THE INFINITE TIDES shares several elements with SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer, which I raved about last year, though the two are very different in tone. I asked Kiefer if he'd read Netzer's novel, and he said the two of them had become friends and critique partners because of their books. I love the idea of two novelists I admire looking over each other's work. THE INFINITE TIDES is another strong recommendation, and Kiefer is another writer I can't wait to read more from.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade examines how to weigh the quality of feedback based on different reader reactions: "I don't know about everyone, but I am most likely to take advice when it comes from someone who obviously understands what I'm trying to do. A person who 'gets it' is the one who can sense the vision of what I'm trying to achieve -- and their vision matches pretty well with mine. In this case I'm going to be very careful before I reject anything they say, because they and I are working toward the same goal."

September 3, 2013

Starting Ray Bradbury

The next author from my START HERE project is Ray Bradbury. I followed the reading pathway created by Cassandra Neace, consisting of two new-to-me books and one reread:

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is made up of short stories (most originally published separately) connected by short vignettes. Together these form a novel-ish work with Mars as the main character and the evolving relationship of humans to the planet as the central story arc. I find the idea of colonizing Mars intriguing, and though Bradbury's take on it isn't a realistic one, I was fascinated by the issues and possibilities explored in this collection.

The Mars of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is already occupied before humans arrive. Circumstances allow the book to include several first contact stories that play out in very different ways, all engrossing. I enjoyed how often I had no idea what was going to happen next. While a few of the stories in the collection didn't appeal to me (these happen to mostly appear toward the end), the rest were gripping and often beautiful. I definitely recommend this book to any science fiction fan who hasn't read it.

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN is a strong collection of short fiction with various subjects and settings. There's a brief framing device involving a tattooed (illustrated) man, but it's far less interesting than the stories themselves. The collection includes some additional Martian Chronicles and other tales of space travel. Several stories are focused on families. Many are disturbing.

I liked almost all of the stories a great deal. Two stood out for me: "The Long Rain" is about a group of men lost on Venus, where it never stops raining. I could feel the visceral horror of the constant deluge. "Zero Hour" is an unsettling story about the way adults ignore children at play.

→ In FAHRENHEIT 451, society has transformed to a point where houses are fireproof and ideas are dangerous. The job of firemen is now to burn forbidden books. The story revolves around one fireman who starts having doubts about the nature of his work. When I read THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, I was interested to spot stories in both collections that involve the banning and burning of imaginative books, anticipating the later novel.

I originally read FAHRENHEIT 451 as a kid, and as far as I can remember, I liked it then. Reading the novel again, I was somewhat bored and didn't find it nearly as compelling as the short story collections. The characters aren't that fully developed, and the focus is more on the philosophical nature of the ideas than on the construction of a convincing situation. It wasn't until near the end that I started to feel at all invested in the outcome of the events.

In reflecting on my reaction to FAHRENHEIT 451, I realized that none of the Bradbury I read is especially strong in the character department. In all of these books, the scenarios and the plots are what stand out, as well as his wonderful way with language. This combination of strengths and weaknesses work better in the short stories, since I'm willing to tolerate a lack of characterization if I'm only spending a few pages with a character rather than an entire novel.

It is also worth noting that these three books are among Bradbury's earliest published work. He went on writing for another half century. Aside from some scattered stories, I think the only other Bradbury I've read is DANDELION WINE, a non-science fictional work based on Bradbury's childhood in small-town Illinois. I would like to read more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Wallace Yovetich writes at Book Riot In Praise of Reading Slowly: "It means more to me than just the story between the covers because it holds the story of that entire year of my life. When I see it now on my shelf I am taken back in time -- I remember the relationship that started that fall as I started the book, that faltered as many times as I put the book down, and that was picking up speed again as I picked up speed in the reading."

August 30, 2013

Inching Ever Closer

Great novel progress this month. Among the recent achievements:

→ Every morning, I continue to be quite enthusiastic about getting down to work. (Okay, nearly every morning.) It has really made this whole endless revision thing far less painful than it was becoming.

→ I've sprinkled in a bunch of new backstory that either makes all the character motivations much clearer or bogs the entire story down. Can't wait to find out which!

→ I spent a long time studying TV Tropes (warning: not safe for productivity) in an attempt to figure out whether a particular scene in my novel is inadvertently an uncomfortable cliche. Still not sure, and I went back and forth about a thousand times on whether to remove it. Keeping it in for now, with the recognition that whatever it is, it's no longer inadvertent.

→ Remember how at the Squaw Valley workshop I received a suggestion about adding a prologue to better set up my novel? I wrote one, and I think it's pretty cool, but it's possibly just as problematic an opening. I've sent it off to a few of my workshop buddies to get some reactions.

Again, so much obsessing over paragraph breaks.

That's all I have to report this time. I can almost see the end from here!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Jacket Justice, book cover designer Allison Strauss analyzes the covers of bestsellers and suggests improved designs.

August 26, 2013


Alissa Nutting's TAMPA gets to the point right away, and it's a disturbing point: The narrator, 26-year-old Celeste, is an eighth-grade English teacher who is sexually obsessed with 14-year-old boys. In fact, she becomes an eighth-grade teacher for that reason alone, and from the first day of school, all she thinks about is identifying a student who can fulfill her urges while not telling anyone. Celeste soon selects Jack as her target, and he proves himself a compliant participant in the extreme sex acts she craves.

This sounds horrific, and it's supposed to be. Nutting's book is an impressive, powerful, and fascinating work because the despicable character of Celeste is so skillfully rendered. The first-person narrative forces readers to experience Celeste's thoughts in all their specific and gruesome detail, and they only become more repulsive and shocking as the story unfolds.

The inevitable comparison is to LOLITA. It's been a while since I read Nabokov's novel, but my recollection is that Humbert Humbert is a pathetic character who I felt sorry for. The dirty trick of LOLITA is that I found myself sympathizing with, even rooting for, a character I considered morally objectionable. By contrast, Celeste never elicits any sympathy. From the first paragraph to the last, she is unrelentingly loathsome. She's a narcissist, she is intolerant of every flaw in the people around her, and she cares nothing for Jack's feelings except to the extent that they might pose a risk. The uncomfortable pleasure of TAMPA is being inside the mind of a character who keeps sinking to greater depths of awfulness.

For readers who can stomach the premise and the highly graphic descriptions of Celeste's actions and fantasies, I recommend TAMPA. Furthermore, all this depravity is packaged in a wonderful fuzzy hardcover. When I brought the book to the counter to buy it, the bookseller hadn't handled the copies yet, and she flinched as she touched it. I figured that was the desired effect. In a Daily Beast interview, though, Nutting said of the cover, "It's a security blanket. When the book gets too scary, you can close it and pet the cover until you're brave enough to open it and start reading again." Either way, the cover makes the book worth owning.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Magazine blog, B. C. Edwards advises, Don’t Write What You Know: "In fiction, the believable is infinitely more important than the actual. No matter how grounded and real something is, if it doesn't fit in the story, it can't live there."

August 15, 2013

Tenth of December

The stories in TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders are wonderfully weird, compellingly readable, and darkly funny. Saunders creates idiosyncratic characters -- often people preoccupied with their rich fantasy lives -- and makes them relatable through a narrative style that's close and casual.

Every story has a strong voice (or several), and while there's a similarity to many of them, each is specific and carefully rendered. A representative excerpt: One of the main characters in "Puppy", a stressed mother trying to sell an unwanted dog, thinks to herself,

So what she'd love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.

Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.

There are some truly disturbing situations in most of these stories, and yet the voices, the details, and sometimes the banality assigned to the extreme scenarios makes this book a hilarious, rather than a horrific, read. If you've heard much about the collection already, you probably heard about "The Semplica Girl Diaries" (a somewhat shorter version of the story is available from The New Yorker). In that story, a father who wishes he had the resources to give his children a better life comes into some money. He uses his windfall to purchase a set of Semplica Girls, a high-status lawn ornament consisting of women from third-world countries who are strung up on a rack and hang there, alive, providing decoration. It's a barbaric and bizarre concept (Saunders has explained the idea came to him in a dream), but reading the story, I laughed often and felt the protagonist's joy when he presents this gift to his family.

As that premise suggests, Saunders's settings aren't always quite of our world. A couple of the stories feature personality-altering drugs with names like VerbaluceTM, and there are some other science fictional elements. But the plots generally revolve around normal human problems such as family conflict and the difficulty of fitting in. Financial status is a recurring theme, with several stories focusing on the gap between those who have money and those who don't. There are a lot of down-on-their-luck characters in this collection, typified by this passage from "My Chivalric Fiasco":

Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it's not broke, don't fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you'll probably make it worse.

A good ending is important in short fiction (well, in long fiction, too), and while some of these stories wrapped up perfectly, several of the endings left me unsatisfied. On the whole, though, I was impressed by every story in the collection, and I recommend this book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade urges writers to ask the scariest question, Why should I care about this story?: "So what is it that makes a reader care? This is a tricky question, and not everyone will answer entirely the same way. However, the best place to look is at the protagonist and their goals, and what will happen if those goals are not met."

August 7, 2013

Reply Hazy Try Again

It's been mostly all novel, all the time around here, which is pretty great. The forecast for the rest of August is more of the same. I expect blogging will be on the light side for the next little while.

I know that my legions of loyal fans (which is to say, my parents) are clamoring for an answer to that fateful question, "When can we read your novel?" I know that my eternal response, "When it's done," is not a satisfying one. I know that this blog doesn't really need another post which revolves around my unwillingness to provide a more precise answer.

But here's what I'll say: Since getting back from the writing workshop, I have made progress like whoa. I am cranking through this revision pass. Notes on "todo" cards are turning into notes on "done" cards, or I'm realizing the ideas don't fit into the story after all. Pointless sentences are meeting their swift ends at the sharp point of my delete key. (Ditto awkward metaphors like that one.) This stack of manuscript pages is going down.

In other words, I'm busy with my other words. Outlook good.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Opinionator blog, Ben Yagoda tackles the question, Should We Write What We Know?: "In all cases, the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn 'em and leave 'em." (Thanks, Beyond the Margins!)

→ Rebecca Joines Schinsky at Book Riot makes The Case for Reading Bad Books: "Reading bad books and learning to identify what makes them bad has helped me identify what makes the good ones good."

July 30, 2013

Starting Jane Austen

It's been a while since my last post related to my START HERE project, but I've been proceeding with the next couple of authors, though it's taken a while to finish in the midst of all my other reading, writing, and conference-attending.

I started reading Jane Austen prior to embarking on this project, but it was only last year. When I read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover a classic that I actually enjoyed.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is funny. It has a nicely constructed plot that keeps the story moving along in a compelling way. It offers a look at the stifling social customs of 200 years ago, and while these are strange and foreign to readers today, the commentary on the annoying ways people behave is perfectly relevant and identifiable. (For those familiar with the book, I recommend this Slate Book Club discussion of the story and why it remains popular.)

The reading pathway for Austen, suggested by Amanda Nelson, starts with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and puts PRIDE AND PREJUDICE second. Now that I've read SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I have to disagree with that ordering, because if it had been my first Austen, I wouldn't have the same feeling of finally understanding why her work has stood up through time.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is Austen's first novel, and maybe that's why it didn't hold my attention nearly as well as her next book. I often found the story slow going, and I wasn't as invested in the outcomes of the various romances that form the plot.

Still, the sarcastic social commentary is in there and is the book's big strength. I enjoyed cringing along with the main character as she experiences the unpleasantness of being forced to spend time with tiresome people. I just would have preferred that the novel didn't dwell quite so long on making this point.

I guess I haven't mentioned what either of these novels are about. Most people are probably already aware that both focus on the question of who is going to marry who, while demonstrating the economic importance to an upper-class woman of making a good match. In my opinion these aren't particularly romantic stories -- the characters never have an opportunity to get to know each very well before declaring their love, because that's how society worked at the time -- so I don't recommend either reading or rejecting Austen based on whether you're interested in a love story. The books are really about how a particular part of the social structure works and how people manage to find even a little bit of love within its constraints.

The third book in the pathway is EMMA. I do intend to read it, but not right away.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ann Morgan completed A Year of Reading the World and relates what she learned from the experience: "In the hands of gifted writers, I discovered, bookpacking offered something a physical traveller could hope to experience only rarely: it took me inside the thoughts of individuals living far away and showed me the world through their eyes." (Thanks, Louise!)

July 26, 2013

Not Bad At All

I'll admit I had some concerns that when I got back from Squaw Valley and looked at my novel in the light of everything I learned, I was going to want to rip it apart and embark on a new giant revision. You'll all be relieved to hear that this is not the case. I'm still pleased with the state of the manuscript as it stands. I do plan to make some changes to the beginnings of the storylines based on feedback I received, but beginnings are always problematic things that need a million rounds of tinkering, so this is no big setback.

It took me a while after returning from the conference to actually get back to work, but I've been plugging away these last couple of days, and it's going great. What I'm doing now is what I've been doing for the past few months (with quite a few chunks of time off for travel and other activities): fixing continuity errors and tightening things up and dealing with all the other miscellaneous issues that crop up during two years of rewriting. I'm making excellent progress, and it won't be long now.

Today I added in a bunch of minor details that needed to be set up sooner than they were. I was pleased with how I worked these in. I trimmed some conversations that went on too long and fixed some sentences that didn't quite mean what I wanted them to.

Most excitingly, I read a scene that made me teary-eyed and another that made me laugh. I think I've got something good here.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scott Lynch offers a strongly worded reminder that there is no shortcut to being good: "How long does the process of hard work + self-awareness + perseverance take? I don't know; how long is a string? There is no RIGHT path. There is no IDEAL way. There is no PROPER length of time. There is only your right path, your ideal way, your proper length of time."

July 23, 2013

Wisdom From Squaw Valley

Last week I made a series of posts about my experience attending the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. To wrap up my conference reporting, I'm going to present some of the many, many bits of wisdom I scribbled down over the course of the week.

I'm attributing these ideas to the people who shared the advice or inspiration, but nothing should be considered a direct quotation. I've taken what I wrote down in my notebook, which was usually a paraphrase to start with, and then transformed the notes into actual sentences. It's also possible I've made some attribution errors if I noted the wrong speaker during a panel or if a person was passing on a suggestion from someone else. So approach this list as a general impression of things that were said rather than a transcript.

With that caveat, enjoy these lessons from Squaw Valley! (For even more, check out Squaw Valley's WRITERS WORKSHOP IN A BOOK.)

On living the writing life:

Amanda Eyre Ward: The people who go home from the conference, write every day, and believe in themselves are the ones who will succeed.

Martin J. Smith: Writing is the worst-paying career he's ever had, but the best-paying hobby. He's always kept his other day job, because it gives him freedom in his writing by separating the money part from the creative part.

Janet Fitch: The people in your life will respond to your level of seriousness about your writing. Make clear that you find your writing time valuable, and they will find it valuable and allow you to have it. Much of writing is defending your time.

→ Martin J. Smith: You need a hide like a rhinoceros, and you need persistence. You know what you're trying to do in your story. If feedback rings true, take it to heart. If not, let it bounce off your rhino hide.

On getting the words out:

Amy Tan: She isn't good at explaining what her work-in-progress is about. It's like performing an autopsy on a story coming alive, and she fears the story will die of exposure.

→ Martin J. Smith: His magic formula for what it takes to pursue your dream can be conveyed in four words: "Ten hours a week." That's enough to accomplish something.

→ Janet Fitch: You can't think about writing a whole novel. Instead write a scene, and a scene, and a scene.

Teresa Jordan: Her father would say everyone should be allowed to have an experimental child and then drown it. For novels, this is actually practical to do.

→ Janet Fitch: Writing develops a shell when it sits for a while, and it becomes harder to crack into. Check in on your work every day, even just to clean up a few sentences.

July 19, 2013

Feedback From Squaw Valley

Yesterday I wrote about how the workshops are structured at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. As I mentioned, we had a wide variety in our group in terms of writer experience level and the style and content of the work under consideration. Approximately half of the manuscripts we critiqued were short stories and half were chapters from novels.

Though I spend most of my time noveling, I've been getting more interested in short stories lately and have been trying to read and write more of them. I was aware that it's less complicated to workshop a complete story rather than a piece of a larger work, so I decided to challenge myself to write a new story I could bring to the conference. I wrote one during the couple of weeks beforehand. I thought it was pretty good and was curious how others would respond.

When I arrived at Squaw, I learned that my story would be workshopped on the final day. At first I was concerned that I would spend all week in nervous anticipation, but I soon decided it would be nice to wait and hear feedback after already knowing a lot about the general tastes of each group member. And honestly, since I'd written the story so recently, I didn't have as much invested in it as I might have if I'd submitted a chapter from my novel. So I didn't stress about it.

During the conference we received some great advice about workshops from several of the staff members. We heard that while there's value in having your work critiqued by others, it's by far more useful to be the one giving feedback. The reason for this is that when a writer suggests improvements to a story, they are really stating how they would change the piece if they were writing it. But the author under critique doesn't want to write more like someone else, and the advice often doesn't wind up being applicable to their manuscript as written by them. The advice giver is the one who benefits, by thinking about an assortment of stories and forming opinions about strengths and weaknesses that can later be applied to their own writing.

This isn't to say that all workshop feedback should be ignored. It's up to the writer to decide what suggestions to take and how to implement the ideas. We heard that the best advice might be the stuff that resonates right away (you already knew it was a problem), but it can also be the feedback that you're angry about hearing until two months later when you realize it was right (deep down, you really knew it was a problem). One leader said that if we use five percent of the critique we receive, we had a really good workshop.

So, what did I hear when my story was workshopped? Overall, people liked my story, and they had a ton of suggestions for how to make it better. I think that's the best possible outcome of a workshop. There was some good debate about various aspects of the characterization and plot, and I've written down a bunch of conflicting opinions about scenes to shorten or lengthen or add or delete. It'll take me some time to go through all the notes and marked-up manuscripts and compile all the information, and then I expect I'll put the story aside for a while, but I think eventually it could become something much stronger than it is.

July 18, 2013

Squaw Valley Overview

I spent last week attending the writers workshop run by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Yesterday I reported on some highlights, and today I'm going to cover the basics of how the conference is run.

First off, as I discussed a couple months ago, I did have to apply and be accepted in order to attend this program. Then I had to pay a sizable fee for tuition and housing. I feel fortunate that I was able to afford this (and even pay extra for my own room and private bathroom), and I'm happy to say that I also feel I got my money's worth. Scholarships are available, and from talking to people I got the impression that financial aid was offered to a fair number of participants. Details about all this stuff is available on the FAQ.

The conference was held at the Squaw Valley ski resort, with all the events taking place in one large building that serves as the main dining and drinking area for skiers during the winter. Lodging is either at the Squaw Valley condos (The Village) or in vacation rental houses nearby. I had very convenient housing in the condo building closest to the meeting area, so my commute was the shortest possible, about a two-minute walk. Some people were a mile or more away and had to either walk that or drive in each day. I shared my condo with two other women, and we had a good time hanging out in the evenings.

Each morning from 9 to noon was spent in workshop. I was with the same group of 12 workshop members all week, but every day we had a different staff member lead our discussion. This gave us the opportunity to benefit from a variety of perspectives and discussion styles. The organizers clearly took great care in arranging the schedule of group leaders so that every workshop had a chance to work with an editor and an agent as well as several types of writers.

For each workshop session, two manuscripts were up for critique, and the bulk of the morning was devoted to discussing these, though often the leaders also gave some time over to a small lecture or writing exercise. The schedule of manuscripts was set in advance, and again there was a deliberate system behind which participants were paired with which professionals.

I'm sure effort also went into assembling a workshop group that included a variety of backgrounds, writing styles, and experience levels. As I said yesterday, my group worked together very well despite having such a mix of people. Over the course of the week, we got to know each other's tastes and opinions, and many of us left with ideas about who we'd like to exchange work with in the future.

July 17, 2013

Squaw Valley Highlights

I'm back from the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and wow, is my brain full. I had an amazing time, and I learned so much.

Before I start reporting on my week, though, I have to mention something even more exciting. Yesterday, my new nephew made his way into the world. It was very thoughtful of him to wait until I was home and had the day free to do nothing but wait eagerly for news of his arrival. I'm looking forward to going back east to meet him -- and play with his big brother again -- later this summer.

I have so many things to say about Squaw Valley that I plan to do a series of posts over the next few days. I thought I'd start off with a list of high points, and later I'll go into more detail about various aspects of the conference.

In no particular order, the highlights:

→ I spent three hours every morning with a dozen people tasked with pointing out faults, and it was wonderful. I really lucked out in having such a smart, insightful workshop group that got along well.

→ I got to speak casually with several authors I already admired and some others I didn't yet know I was in awe of.

→ A successful novelist read the first chapter of my novel, praised it repeatedly, and then told me why it's not the right place for the book to start. She blew my mind with her brilliant idea for a better opening, and now I can't wait to get back to work. The best news? It doesn't involve changing everything!

→ For eight days, pretty much every conversation I had was about writing and books. It was heaven.

→ The writers, editors, and agents who make up the staff shared their wisdom and talent in panels and readings so compelling that I attended almost every one, despite the warning that it wasn't possible to do everything.

→ I witnessed Amy Tan playing the ukelele and chatted with her about The Rock Bottom Remainders. (She also gave a couple of inspiring talks.)

→ Whenever I went outside, I got to gaze at gorgeous mountain scenery, and during our afternoon off, I had time to both visit one of the peaks and get down to the Lake Tahoe shoreline. Photo album here.

More to come about the format of the conference, the process of receiving feedback, and the knowledge I gained.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond The Margins, Kim Triedman offers advice on how to prepare your loved ones for your book release: "People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it -- correctly or incorrectly -- as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you've heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family."

July 5, 2013

Workshop Around The Corner

Well, I finished up that short story I was writing, so now I'm all ready to head to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop on Monday morning. I'm so excited!

The schedule for next week is completely packed with workshops, talks, panel discussions, and opportunities to learn from other writers. I expect it will be a little overwhelming at times, but it should also be amazing. Hopefully somewhere in there I'll find enough free time to check out Lake Tahoe (I've never been!) and the gorgeous surroundings.

Besides that, I don't have much else to report. Up until I switched my attention to the short story, I was hard at work on my novel. Recently I've made some great improvements that really pull things together.

Right now I'm in the midst of a long holiday weekend, enjoying time with my loved ones before I leave for a week. I hope all of you are also getting a few days to relax and have fun.

I'm sure I'll have a million things to talk about when I get back from the workshop. Until then, stay cool, and stay cool!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Guardian Books Blog is creating a literary clock of quotes from literature that mention specific times. They already have quite a collection and are looking for more submissions.

→ Minh Le of Book Riot crunches the numbers on lists of favorite novels, most-hated novels, and the books people keep meaning to read.

July 1, 2013

Book Catchup

I feel like I've been cramming books into my eyes nonstop over here, though most days I actually don't get to read as much as I want because I have to devote time to writing, and also to occasionally interacting with my loved ones. But I have been doing a lot of reading, especially during my recent travels. As a result, I have various half-written book-related posts in the pipeline, including more from my START HERE project, which I haven't forgotten about. Those will be coming later in the month.

Today, I'm catching up with a few quick recommendations of books I've read in the past couple of months. If you follow me on Goodreads, you may have already seen these, but I wanted to share them on the blog as well.

NOT SO LONG AGO, NOT SO FAR AWAY by Trisha Slay - Erika is a shy, awkward teenager in a small Ohio town in 1977, and her already crummy life has just gotten worse. Her best (and only) friend runs away from home, leaving Erika to deal with the fallout. Her controlling, criticizing mother is treating her more awfully than ever. And the kids at school taunt her through the final days of the school year. But everything changes for Erika when she sees the hit movie of the summer. Star Wars gives Erika a new hope, and all she wants to do is watch it over and over, so she volunteers at the local theater in exchange for unlimited viewings. There she meets the band of rebels who will become her friends, learns that some of the problems she's facing are more complicated than she thought, and also discovers that she has the power to fight back.

Erika and the other characters in this book are wonderful and multi-dimensional. I felt great sympathy for Erika in her struggles and kept rooting for her to recognize her own great qualities. Her emotions often seemed excessive to me, but I think it's an accurate portrayal for an adolescent character. The story has several subplots that work well together, including some romance and a bit of a mystery about what's going on in Erika's town. It always kept me engaged. The book is written for teens but can be enjoyed by anyone.

Trisha was one of my local NaNoWriMo buddies, though she's since moved away. She started this novel during NaNo long ago, and I'm glad that after years of effort on the book, she's released it into the world. Congrats, Trisha!

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA by Mohsin Hamid is a beautifully written work with an intriguing style and structure, though it falls short of fully succeeding as a novel. As the title suggests, HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA pretends to be a self-help guide. It's a good premise, and I enjoyed the clever self-consciousness of the narrator who provides the instructions.

June 28, 2013

How To Write a Short Story, Apparently

1. Despair that you'll ever be able to write a short story. This phase can last anywhere from a few hours to half a lifetime.

2. Think up a first line you really like the sound of.

3. Let the first line rattle around in your brain looking for a story to attach itself to.

4. After some weeks of this, decide to take a scientific approach. Figure out the last line that logically pairs with your first line.

5. Try to solve the puzzle of how to get from the first line to the last line. Swim a lot of laps during this stage, because ideas grow in water.

6. Gradually, over the course of a month or two, develop the idea of a path between the lines that's shaped kind of like a story, but without any driving motivation.

7. Keep searching for the missing elements of your story. They're there in the water somewhere if you just keep swimming long enough.

8. Come up with an actual plot that makes sense, more or less. Hooray, the hard part is over! All you have to do now is write it.

9. Realize you still have to write it. Despair anew. Procrastinate for a while.

10. Start writing the first draft. Discover that you're out of practice in putting any old words down because you've spent the past years in revision, obsessing over selecting the perfect words.

11. Take pleasure in the fact that short stories are a whole lot shorter than novels. Look at that, you're already halfway done.

12. Complete the first draft. Congratulations, you wrote a short story! Now you can revise forever.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Page-Turner, Thomas Beller considers the relationship between writers and Twitter: "I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it 'talking it out?' Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea."

June 20, 2013

Pondering the Passage of Time

My novel takes place over generations, with storylines spaced thirty years apart. If you've been following my revision adventures for a while, you'll know that I wrote the first two drafts in the order the chapters appear, with the stories interlocked, but for the last big rewrite, I took it one storyline at a time. For various reasons, I worked on the chronologically last story first, then moved backwards through the generations.

Now that I'm making another pass through the manuscript, I'm considering the stories in the more logical direction of earliest to latest. One of the most important things I'm doing is fixing up places where the text of later storylines is inconsistent with what now occurs in the characters' past. There aren't a huge number of these issues because I did have so much planned out in advance and made a million notes to handle the complex structure, but some errors did get introduced. For the most part, these problems are simple to fix with minor edits.

Something I did not anticipate, though, was that I was going to make some pretty major personality changes, even beyond what I planned, to the earliest narrator and his wife. These are great changes and strengthen that storyline (and therefore the whole novel) in a big way. But now I'm looking at the second storyline, which I wrote with a very clear idea of those characters as the sixty-something parents of the middle narrator, and it doesn't quite match up.

It's subtle, though. I'm not finding it unbelievable that these are the same people thirty years on. For one thing, their portrayals are colored by the perspective of their adult son, who has strong feelings about his mother and father and the way he was raised. And their roles in the middle storyline are limited to their interactions with the narrator, which are very different from the interactions they have with each other in the earliest story. So it makes sense that they don't come off quite the same way, and I'm trying to keep that in mind as I tweak the things they do and say for more consistency with their earlier selves.

But the question I keep running into, which is becoming more of a philosophical issue than a writing problem, is just how much the passage of thirty years of adulthood changes a person. I'm sure the answer is that it varies by individual and circumstance, and also that some aspects of anyone's personality are more fixed than other parts. My experience of people (both observing and being one) is that we mostly don't think of ourselves as changing very much past a certain age, though the people we know may not always agree with that self-assessment.

To bring this back to my revision: As I go along, I'm getting more confident about reconciling the different-age versions of my characters, but this has been a tricky thing to deal with. Fortunately, some of the age transitions are from babies or young children to adults, and with these I have less concern about keeping the personalities consistent. In fact, with the kids it's almost the opposite: I worry that some of the childhood behavior lines up too neatly with the adult lives and may be corny.

Add this all to the long list of reasons this is a ridiculously complicated novel to be writing. I can only hope that in thirty years I'm going to look back and laugh about it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley of Beyond the Margins shares what she learned in a writing class about Secrets and Lies: "For each piece of the secret, a different version of things can be imagined. And having these pieces spread among characters allows them to figure out different things at different times, making it easier for the writer to maintain tension throughout."

June 17, 2013

Life After Life

In LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson, a woman lives her life over and over, trying to evade an untimely death. It's an intriguing premise, and I adored the execution.

The novel opens as a baby is born during a snowstorm in 1910 England. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies. The story begins again. This time, the doctor has made it through the storm to attend the delivery, and he cuts the cord, saving the baby's life. The little girl, Ursula, goes on to have a childhood, but then she dies in an accident. The story begins again.

As Ursula's lives continue, she acquires some awareness of the paths previously taken, and she tries to change circumstances to prevent her own death. She isn't always successful, and the book develops a darkly humorous attitude toward her predicament. Despite the often grim subject matter, this is a very funny novel. Ursula's array of relatives and friends include some amusingly infuriating characters, and the narration is full of biting commentary on their antics.

The book's historical content is fascinating and detailed. Ursula witnesses and falls victim to several major historical events of the first half of the twentieth century. Atkinson has clearly done her research on the Spanish influenza epidemic, World War II, and especially the London Blitz. I recommend LIFE AFTER LIFE to fans of historical fiction, those who like non-standard narratives, and really any interested reader.

(Note that another novel with the same title was also released this spring, so if you decide to pick up this book, make sure you get the right one.)

June 11, 2013


I was on vacation last week. I had lots of wonderful time with my family, especially my adorable nephew. (For photos of my adorable nephew, plus descriptions of two unusual dramatic events that I was witness to, read my brother's post about our family getaway.) I accomplished none of the writing-related tasks I thought I might have time for, didn't solve the plot problems I intended to mull over, and only got reading done on the airplane. It was truly a vacation from my regular life, and it was great.

Now I'm back and trying to wrap my brain around my novel again. Yesterday was slow going. First I put off facing my manuscript as long as possible by deciding that I had to take care of housework. Then I spent too long organizing some notes, fretted at length over one of those plot problems and finally decided it wasn't as big a deal as I thought, and eventually wrangled a small amount of text into shape.

Today is better. I'm rediscovering my enthusiasm for my story, and I'm excited about the improvements I'm making to this particularly troublesome section. I feel confident that I'll continue progressing at a pace I feel good about, and this draft is going to get done.

It was nice to get a break. It was nice to return. I can't ask for more than that!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer Weiner weighs in on the debate over likable characters: "Currently, the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write a protagonist who is--oh, the horror--likable. Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?"