Tag Archives: writing blog

From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part I

Sentimentality is both a blessing and a curse.

I’ve demonstrated before to what extent I can cling onto the past in my guest post for Real Bloggers United, “CSI: Chronically Sentimental Individual.”  Now, in the spirit of the recently passed Halloween, let’s just say my memories continue to “haunt” me…

But in good ways (hence, a “blessing”), though sometimes they hurt so good (hence, a “curse”).  I first conceived this topic last week when my parents’ visit came to an end and they returned Stateside.  Though the effect has had a few days to wear off, I remember how I walked home from the tube and almost couldn’t bear how everything I saw reminded me of them because of our recent walks around the neighborhood together.  Forget that I’ve traversed that same route for over two years now and between their two visits they haven’t even been in London a total of two months…the memories with them seemed to replace my collective everyday experience.  Same went for when I returned to the flat and sobbed over little things like the coffee remaining in the French press that we’d shared earlier that morning.  I know, I know…it’s passed now, though tonight I’m jolted with another stroke of sweet sentimentality from home, as I just checked my Facebook messages and saw one from a former student I taught my last year in the States. She was a freshman at the time and is now a grown-up senior about to graduate…simply cannot believe it! My babies! Anyways, she had the sweetest things to say, which made me really pine for those happy teaching years.

In view of such “ghosts” from my past, I find that they appear in some incarnation or another in my writing, perhaps in special homage of these special people and moments.  “Write what you know,” they always say, and I do, knowing full well I am clearly not alone.  I’m constantly reading intros to novels that state how they’re the “most autobiographical” of the author’s works, and, really, isn’t every work of fiction arguably so?  Just ways of telling our truths “slant”?

At the time I started my current manuscript, I was in need of emotional healing to follow leaving home and career, so the tale I began to spin was much more so a “therapy” than an ambition. I didn’t care if it was unoriginal; I let my first chapters draw very much from my own background, which resurrected the spirit of my earlier happiness and allowed it drift and swirl around me in my new atmosphere. The words brought it alive, brought the people and the values back to me and reminded me who I was in an otherwise unfamiliar context that sapped me of purpose. The story certainly evolved from there into a terrain highly unlike anything on which I myself have embarked, but those early chapters gave my protagonist her core, and in doing so assured me of mine.

Among the sentimental inspirations from real life, there are very direct ones that creep up in sentences reflecting the comforting closeness of my family like:

“They weren’t the stuff best-sellers and blockbusters were made of, and prayed they never would emulate what society spent its money on or turned its channel to.”

“Her mom multi-tasked concern for her child with rescuing bacon strips from their spitting inferno.  She wore her short, hairsprayed curls like a helmet ready to combat any threats to her family head-on.”

I’ve also incorporated actual snippets from childhood diaries and adulthood travel journals. Plucked entirely out of their original contexts, though, it’s crazy the way they fit in and communicate something entirely new and different and had inspired new offshoots of sheerly imaginative thought, not that from experience.  It’s been like dismantling a clock and using some of its gears to operate, ooh, maybe something like the Happiness Machine in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (which, in keeping with our theme here, is a valentine to Bradbury’s own childhood).

It’s all about our frames of reference.  No one could possibly perceive the world in exactly the same way that we do individually because we occupy separate space and move differently through it. This gives us our own private reality, then, and this is what writers constantly tap into to construct their fictional realities.  And there’s more I’d like to say on this, but am realizing this is getting long, so I’ll break it into two parts.  Fair enough?  Cool.  See you tomorrow.


Monkeys in My Tree

Just a quickie, folks, to notify that the wacky monkeys I descended from (a.k.a., Mom & Dad) have swung from a loooong vine across the Atlantic ocean to visit me.  We’ve just returned from a delightful weekend in the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon and are recovering from a not-so-delightful extended train ride back to London last night—our train hit someone on the tracks, the poor soul :(…Then tomorrow we’re off to rrrrOMA! for a few days.

Hopefully I’m not wearing the poor Ps out already; we’d had to flee town for this past weekend already because my genius husband and I managed to dumb-ass double-book ourselves, so a couple of our friends flew in from Italy last Wednesday before my parents arrived from Chicago the following morning.  Our wee abode officially bursting beyond capacity, I chose to head for the hills (or the “wolds,” I should say) to give everyone a bit of breathing room.  Since our first guests arrived in March of 2009, this is the 17th round of guests that we’ve hosted in London.  Not counting parental repeats, 30 different people have rested their heads at what we’ve long been calling the B&B.  I should’ve bought a guestbook from the getgo had I any freaking idea how many people would suddenly come out of the woodwork and want to stay with us once we moved somewhere cool.  I think our next home had better be in Nebraska.

Anyways, all whingeing aside, I’m having the best time with my parents, and I’m giddy because my Dear Reader has been emailing back her second round of feedback on my manuscript ending.  I’ve got some work cut out for me on that, but I’m so excited to revisit it and make it the strongest version of itself.  I have a November workshop on manuscript submission as my deadline for getting things as polished and perdy as can be :).

In the meantime, as long as my tree here continues to be occupied and me swinging hither and yon as Hostess with the Mostess, I’ll be out of commission in the blogosphere for several more days.  I shall miss you and your wonderful insights until then—*mwah*!!


So, uh…Did You Bring Any Protection?

*blush*  Get your minds out of the gutter.  What kind of monkey do you think I am?!

“The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have long neglected my little writing prompts that originally kicked off this blog, mainly because they’re aim was to get me over writer’s block, and it worked!  I’ve been cranking until I’m crossed eyes these recent days on revising my manuscript, and for the time being am keen to step away for a bit to clear my head.  So…

The Prompt:

Today page 43 of Room to Write asks us to list the protections we use in our everyday lives or, indeed, our writing.  We are to then have our main character embody this protection in a scene or simply write a new piece without using writing-protections (e.g., a different place than the usual, without a word/page limit, etc.).

Henry VIII's armour

Response:

My everyday protections include:

– smiling

– expression through writing versus speaking

– diving behind a book or in front of a computer/tv

– my giant headphones and iPod

– sarcasm

– my forked tongue, when need be

– stubbornness, which includes a common refusal to say, “sorry”

– quiet pensiveness, reclusiveness

Hm, given that codpiece on Henry's armour, perhaps he could've used this protection as well...

– over-analysis

– verbatim recall of prior conversations (one of my more superb defenses)

– cold silence or, conversely, inane babble

– hats, cardigans, and sunglasses

– take-away caffeine (somehow just holding the steaming paper cup is a fortification, regardless what’s inside)

– sleep

– my quilt

– a hybrid superiority/inferiority complex that’s a bit difficult to describe…

I’ll stop there and address the second part of this exercise by first peeling off one key writing-protection of mine:  the ability to revise.  So I’m just going to write this off the cuff and not obsess over how it comes out, leaving it raw in its first draft form.

So, that said, I have certainly infused a lot of the above protections into my protagonist, who I’ll continue to address by the pseudonym “Margaret” (whoops, there I go, still protecting…and for whatever reason protecting the fictional :)).  I could probably find one-to-one matches for almost everything on the list, but here’s just a few examples:

“Margaret beamed one of her fake smiles in maneuvering in ninety-degree angles toward her.”

“Writing was so much easier than calling; writing gave control, the ability to pause, reread, and revise.  Margaret didn’t trust herself with speaking any longer; the restraint in talking to her parents was difficult enough, and they alone embodied the innocence necessary to not pick up on vocal cues.  Her not-so innocent friends and brother, on the other hand, were risks she couldn’t take.”

“Shaking off the mundane tasks of Everyday-Land and shoving in a thumbnail to spear a dog-eared page, Margaret tiptoed into her alternate universe at the delicious creaking sound of a hardcover binding blooming into action.”

“She’d banked an increasing number of slumbering hours ever since that first day […] and she wiled away the afternoons on indulgences like prolonged soaks in the tub and otherwise luxurious daytime lounging.  The solitary nature of her days quieted her mind to her earlier paranoia, distortions in perception that she’d ascribed to stress-induced fatigue.  [It] all dissipated before her like the steam that rose off the bubbles in her lap.”

The sun shied away behind the clouds, making Margaret’s sunglasses redundant, so she reluctantly removed them.”

“She’d lately taken to […] a route of anonymity that concealed her among side streets rather than parade her before rows of shops and sidewalk cafés.  She didn’t want to be observed, though sometimes played a mental game that she was hiding from the paparazzi lusting to lavish her with attention—somehow desiring to be a Nobody while still feeling like a Somebody.”

And that kitten definitely has claws when she needs ’em to shield her inner vulnerability.

Reflection:

As much as this character isn’t supposed to be me, it’s interesting to look back on her through this lens and realize how cognizant I am of my defense-mechanisms, as reflected in this mirror.  I reveled before in the fact that writing can be a protective filter of our thoughts by virtue of its revision stage, yet it is also something that leaves us exposed, unveiling raw emotion, intellect, and imagination.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt (and continues to feel) timid about posting a blog, putting those ideas out there for anyone to read and judge.  Getting something “in writing,” after all, carries that sense of no-turning-back, as though signed in our blood or chiseled in stone.  There’s both a structured permanence and organic fluidity to it that just fascinates me, but I’ll leave that to another blog topic on another day.  For now, I suppose these blogs do allow us to go back and edit, but I’ll keep my promise and not exercise that protection ;).  In fact, I’m not even going to let myself read this over before I press “Publish.”  Ha, take that!

What are your protective layers?



The Telltale Taboos

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

The revision continues, so this is just a quickie.  That’s right, I’m gonna just love ya then leave ya, blog-slut that I am…

I’ve done a once-over combing through my manuscript and trimmed out a few thousand words so far.  As I still contemplate how I’m going to tweak that damn ending—sorry, I mean “very” ending—no, I mean “damn” ending—no, I mean just “ending,” period ;)—I’m approaching another wave.  But before I do another complete read-through, I’m strategically using my Word application’s “Find” tool to seek out and evaluate the use of a few common culprits that threaten to weaken our writing.

While there are many ways to slice-and-dice revision (including eliminating those adverbs and “to be” verbs), here’s a sample of overused, taboo words to check for in your manuscript as a quick-fix:

very

always

really

when

then

that

suddenly

just

began / started (With these, don’t use it if whatever is “beginning/starting” doesn’t stop before the action is carried out. Oh my gaawwd, I can’t believe how many ‘began’s I’ve found…naughty Monkey!)

For what that’s worth.  It’s not to say we shouldn’t use these words at all, just not overly so—it’s worth a scan to become cognizant of our usage and determine whether there isn’t a more direct, active means of engaging our reader through other word choices/sentence structure.

Also [I’m adding this retroactively in response to Sharmon’s good point in the comment below], I personally reduced those words in my 3rd-person narration, but left most of them in my dialogue, as those words are likely overused in our writing because they’re what we use often when we speak!  So, it’s arguable from that standpoint that they contribute toward authentic dialogue, no?

What words would you add to the list?

[As an aside, can’t help but share that the Mark Twain quotation reminds me of a time from my consulting days when the guy in the cubicle across from mine started swearing, walked away, then promptly returned with a colleague.  “Fix it,” he said to the guy, pointing at his computer.  Our friend/coworker giggled as he did so.  Afterwards, I learned that the guy had tampered with my cubicle-mate’s Word settings such that every time he typed the word “the” in his client report, it auto-corrected to, well, a term for male genitalia.  Ah, Finance wasn’t always so boring…]


Procrastination Potpourri


The good news: I’ve been slacking on my blog because I’ve cranked up the work on my manuscript.

The bad news: I’ve been slacking on my blog.  Which means neglect of your blogs as well as mine.  Please hang in there with me!  I value so much what I take away from your blogs and comments, so I wouldn’t dare stay away for long; I’m just not the most consistent right now.

To make up for the Monkey imitating a Sloth again, I’ve got a wee smorgasbord of miscellany today.  First off, I am super pleased to say I’ve been productive in slashing word count and getting closer to revamping that ending that I just haven’t been thrilled with for a while.  I have also finished writing the secondary story that interweaves with my main plot, which is much briefer in scale, but had yet to transfer from me noggin to the written word.  That was such a treat to work on for a change in voice, characters, and situation.

But enough about that.  I don’t know how I manage to get on all these freaking email lists, but one lil’ nugget delivered to my Inbox recently was promoting a new book titled Getting Published.  While that highly obscure title hardly clarifies what the text might be about, I thought perhaps I’d pass it on to the blogosphere in the rare event it ends up being somewhat relevant to writing and getting that writing published…ya think?  Actually, now that I think about it, I’m lying…1) I do remember how I got on this mailing list, having emailed an enquiry to the Writers Workshop once over a year ago, and 2) despite that evasive title, I might have some glimmering of an idea as to what the book’s about, as quoth the author:

At the moment, there’s nothing on the market that tells a budding writer what they need to know about the industry. How to select agents, how to engage with agents, what a book deal looks like, what the financial issues are, what the (multitudinous) publishing issues are.

Because agents don’t tell you this either – and nor will your publisher – plenty of ‘professional’ authors are ill-informed about the industry from which they hope to eke a living. I’ve tried my level best to make this the most comprehensive and truthful book of its kind, and I very much hope you like it.

A&C Black have generously agreed to place significant chunks of the book online, so you can get a feel for the book before deciding whether to buy it. We’ve put a full listing of those extracts here. The nice people at A&C Black have also managed to secure a 25% off promotion from Amazon, so if you want to buy the book there, please make my day.

Despite my devoting a sizable chunk of this post to it, I honestly have no insider knowledge on this publication and whether it will deliver what it promises or not, but no harm in sharing.

And, oh, but wait!  There is MORE good news!  Utterly lovely blog awards and recognition.  So a *mwah* and *mwah* to Ollin for the recent blog tag and Milo for the Versatile Blogger Award.  Per the responsibilities attached to the game-o-Blog Tag, my responses follow—and I’ll make this a twofer by tagging AND awarding the Versatile Blogger Award to the 6 bloggers listed below:

1. If you could have any superpower, what would you have? Why?

I would be able to hyper-space anywhere, any time, within seconds. Given my volume of travel, I am getting reeeallly sick of airports and commuting to/from them.  I would also love to pop into my parents’ house across the ocean every time I’m thinking of them and wanna give them a hug.

2. Who is your style icon?

classic: Audrey Hepburn
contemporary: Gwyneth Paltrow
[and, okay—if I cared to get dolled up each day—Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character Melinda Gordon on Ghost Whisperer :)]

3. What is your favorite quote?

Toss-up between:

“So long as books are open, minds can never be closed” – Ronald Reagan
“Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

Well, for as satisfying as it was when my non-domestic self finally learned to cook and my husband said I’d gone from “zero to hero” in the kitchen, I’d probably have to go with all the folks who have told me over the years that I’m a good writer.  That gave me the boost I needed to start believing in that for myself and work even harder to become a better writer.

5. What playlist/cd is in your CD player/iPod right now?

This minute, I’m leaving it to the artificial intelligence of my iTunes’ “Indie Rock” Genius Mix.  It kicked off with Joy Division and is presently playing The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates.”

6. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

Oh, without doubt I am a child of the night.  Left to my own devices these days, I’m always awake into the wee hours of the morning writing/revising or curling up with a good book or flick.

7. Do you prefer dogs or cats?

As I have confessed in a previous blog award acceptance speech:

“Although I love animals (I am, after all, a monkey), I am not a pet person. At all. But if I had to align myself with either the infamous Dog People or Cat People in a finger-snapping gang face-off of “West Side Story” proportions, I would probably go Cat.”

8. What is the meaning behind your blog name?

It dates back to a joke my older brother told me when I was little kid…it had me rolling on the ground for at least a half-hour, howling, and to this day makes me giggle to tears.  I usually resist telling it, as not everyone may find it remotely funny and, moreover, find it disturbing that I do ;).

And now for the tag/awardees:

NickiNicki Elson’s Not-So-Deep Thoughts

EvaWrite in Berlin

CourtneyBurn Your Diary

Cities of the Mind

Agatha – Here Be Dragons (who has already been tagged, but is now awarded)

Milo – In Media Res (who has already been awarded, but is now tagged)

*   *   *   *   *

All right, then.  I’m offline for the rest of today, but am hankering to return to my writing prompts soon, so keep an ear peeled for my next screech.


Basking in Multi-Tasking

“Multi-tasking – Screwing everything up simultaneously.” – Anonymous

Well, let’s hope I don’t screw up everything

I recently shifted to freelancing for my existing employer, so with the exception of one day a week, I can do my work from home.  Yes, that is quite awesome, and I’m not saying I’m not enjoying it.  What I’ve discovered, though, is how much more it stresses me out to not have that set schedule.  Do I get my work stuff out of the way first thing in the morning, or do I work on my manuscript when I’m still fresh?  Should I write my work blog first or save the writing energy for this one, and do either before or after folding the laundry and scrubbing the shower?  Should I tend to the Monkey or the manuscript?  My work email or my personal email or my Monkey email or my other personal email that I also need to use for work?  I literally have tabs open for everything at once and been starting something in one window and switching to tweak something in a different one before the first thing is done.  Though it’s stupidly minor, somehow it helps me to do all my personal/writing-related and work-related schtuff through separate browsers…then I can bookmark accordingly and not have it all staring me down at once.

Soon to be thrown into this loop is *hopefully* dipping my toe back into the classroom to substitute-teach once a week 🙂  And, as of Friday, I’ve accepted a position as Developmental Editor for a new publishing company (also work that will be done remotely)—so once I become certified, I’ll have other people’s fiction manuscripts thrown my way while I’m still trying to finish my own!  I absolutely embrace the opportunity, though, and think it will 1) be refreshing to step outside my own writing at those times it bogs me down, and 2) teach me so much that I can relate back to my own story.  I am super, super psyched about helping others fulfill their writing dreams in this new way.  You can be sure I’ll be keeping you posted on this blog how that goes…

So that’s my update.  I am suffering a massive professional split personality right now, and it’s that much more potent because these are all things I’m personally passionate about and for the most part incorporating into my own home.  So is this exciting that I’ve achieved the point where what I do is so much of who I am day-to-day, or am I going to go batty without the work-life division that helps maintain the work-life balance?  I think it can be the former as long as I keep myself disciplined yet remember it’s okay and necessary to put the work aside and walk away when I need to live.  I know how to prioritize, and I know how to accomplish things bit by bit.  Yeah, I think it’ll be a good thing.

But I don’t know, I’m too busy to think about it now, so I’ll schedule a time to think about it later…

“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” – Scarlett O’Hara

Any of you have some tried-and-true time-management strategies that work well for you?


The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

The-Breakfast-Club-movies-21223076-1558-800

I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


The Fear Factor


The Prompt:

I love how Bonni Goldberg relates writing to medicine when it comes to protecting us against our fears:

“You take small doses of your fears in combination with written words and they create a kind of antibody: a cathartic human experience that authenticates your strength and fragility.”

Page 42 of Room to Write, then, asks us to write a list of our fears and describe one in more specific detail.

Response:

Some things I fear:

– geese

– clowns

– confined spaces

– death (mine, but mostly loved ones)

– being in any way “too late” for anything by the time I move back home

– losing my sight or hearing

– the debilitating effects of aging

– having children

– lack of purpose

– never finishing my book

– rejection

– regret

Okay, I think that’ll do.  Now, to pick just one…it’s tempting to go the route of writing-related fears, but I think I devote enough of this blog to that!  How about the “too late” factor, as I feel it’s one needing more explaining:

The fact that my aging parents continue to age in my absence while living abroad positively terrifies me.  I know many will find that irrational and say that I have to live my own life, but I will never, never forgive myself if something happens to either of them while I am an ocean away.  Just writing this right now is bringing me to tears.  It is something I really, truly cannot stand to fathom.  And I don’t want to miss out on my nieces’ and nephews’ milestones, nor do I want the littlest ones to not know their Auntie.  I am not the person who realizes what they have only when it is “too late”; I’m the person who has always known perhaps too clearly, which is why I would have never left in the first place if it were only up to me.  I don’t think of it as something holding me back; being with my family is actually part and parcel of my life’s ambitions, so anyone who thinks I should feel otherwise can suck it 🙂

My own aging has started to frighten me as well.  I don’t consider myself to be old, but my husband and I have agreed to wait until we return home to our support network before starting a family, at which time I will most definitely be at the infamous cut-off age that younger mommies love to throw out there as the danger zone of higher risks and mandatory tests.  Gee, thanks for making me feel geriatric.  Sorry my last decade has been pleasurable and focused on my needs and catering to my own identity before I give it over so fully to a little person of my making.  I genuinely hope I didn’t just offend any mothers reading this—I think parenting is the most noble occupation for one to assume, but it’s not my fault that I didn’t get married until after my friends were already popping out kids and that other life changes have thrown me for a loop such that there’s a lot I need to get sorted before I feel I could do a remotely good job of it myself.  So I’ll put off applying for that particular position a bit longer; yes, I know, at my own risk.  *eyes rolling*

Returning to find that my old job (for which I was only 1 year away from getting tenure) is not remotely available to me anymore is scary.  I moved the very week that the economy tanked, and what I’d considered a recession-proof job has still managed many layoffs since then, and some departments have frozen their hiring.  Barring that, even if I can vie for a position, perhaps I’ll be judged negatively for my time away from teaching; the powers that be may frown upon my rationale, not find value in how I’ve chosen to apply myself since then.  Even worse, what if I fear teaching itself?  After such a long hiatus, I’m no longer riding the momentum of consecutive years ramping up in the profession.  The flexibility (and sleeping in!) of my present days will be lost, and never doubt the intimidation of staring down 125+ teenagers a day and, even worse, their parents who will too quickly point the finger at you for the consequences of their own lack of parenting at home.  Then again, if I end up not having kids of my own, teaching is a great way to play surrogate.

I think what is overall frightening me is the realization that my life at home did not simply freeze once I took off on that plane, preserved in its tableau of near-perfection while I have my fun and then return to reinsert myself seamlessly back into it.  I will not be entirely the same person either, after all; current experiences are carving me from a square to an octagon-shaped peg.  So I fear the transition that will be repatriation, after expatriation was already so difficult.  I fear feeling out of place in my own home and possibly acknowledging a discontent that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.

But, you know, so be it.  Rejoining my family, starting a family, returning to teaching…I cannot think of three things more worth facing that fear.

Reflection:

First of all, allow me to apologize.  Addressing personal fear just automatically lends itself to a whiny rambling of self-pity, so thank you for bearing with me through it if you’ve made it this far 🙂  I don’t think this activity has brought out any special writing, per se…the fears are plain, so embellishment didn’t come naturally—the way I wrote it is not creative or revelatory.  It didn’t make me realize anything new about myself.

Maybe selecting a different fear or writing in another frame of mind would have made all the difference, but the one thing I can take away from this exercise is the fact that Goldberg was right!  When I started writing about this, as I said, it made me cry—it thrust me into my fear and made me tremble in the face of it.  And yet the more I wrote, the easier it was to pull out of this vulnerable state; putting it in writing made it very plain to see that, while my fears may be justified, they really aren’t as big of a deal as I sometimes let them be.  The more I wrote, the more my heart quieted and the more my mind said, “Poor you with the wonderful family and profession and wonderful period of creative flexibility and travel that you have in-between.  To have had it as long as you did is a gift, and you still might get your cake back to eat it too—or even be okay if you don’t.  So in the meantime, buck up.  Deal.”

In short, facing my fears was embracing my blessings.

And you, brave readers of mine?  What are you so afraid of? And how might your fears impact your writing?


Show Me, Show Me, Show Me How You Do That Meme

These have been busy days causing much blog-neglecting, so for now I shall finally snag the writing activity from Corra McFeydon’s A Lit Major’s Notebook blog as I told her I would.  I had also told her I had a Spotlight Award waiting for her when her blog was up and running again, which is still out there for the offering, though I know she will graciously not accept 😉

This is in keeping with some of the writing prompts I follow that allow for brevity…it’s like an ink-blot test, really, offering insight through metaphorical self-perception:

– If I were a season, I’d be autumn.
– If I were a month, I’d be October.
– If I were a day of the week, I’d be Thursday.
– If I were a time of day, I’d be 23:00.
– If I were a planet, I’d be Saturn. (I like a good accessory).
– If I were a direction, I’d be West.
– If I were a tree, I’d have the perfect branch to sit and imagine on. (and there’d be a monkey in me)
– If I were a flower, I’d be dried jasmine blooming at the bottom of a tea cup.
– If I were a fruit, I’d be a tomato.
– If I were a land animal, I’d be a cat, sleeping in a sunny window.
– If I were a sea animal, I’d be manatee, fooling sailors that I’m a mermaid.
– If I were a bird, I’d be a mockingbird.
– If I were a piece of furniture, I’d be a chaise lounge.
– If I were a liquid, I’d be red wine.
– If I were a stone, I’d be sedimentary.
– If I were a tool, I’d be a level.
– If I were a kind of weather, I’d be alternating showers and sunshine, UK-style.
– If I were a musical instrument, I’d be a piano.
– If I were a color, I’d be burnt sienna (consult your Crayola box).
– If I were a facial expression, I’d be a raised eyebrow.
– If I were an emotion, I’d be anxiety.
– If I were a sound, I’d be fingers tapping on a keyboard/piano keys in inspiration or a flat surface in impatience.
– If I were an element, I’d have an even atomic number.
– If I were a car, I’d be a Volkswagen.
– If I were a food, I’d be cheese.
– If I were a place, I’d be lined in dark wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, flickering in candlelight.
– If I were a flavor, I’d be spicy.
– If I were a scent, I’d be spicy 🙂
– If I were an object, it would be fun to be unidentified and flying, too.
– If I were a body part, I’d be the eyes.
– If I were a song, I’d be “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
– If I were a pair of shoes, I’d be black ballet flats.
– If I were transportation, I’d be my own two feet.
– If I were a fairy tale, I wouldn’t want any contemporary retellings of me to star J-Lo.
– If I were a holiday, I’d be spent traveling.

Oh yeah, and if I were a song, I’d also most certainly want you to rock out to me (men, apply that guyliner):


%d bloggers like this: