Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Power of Snow

I'm at the midpoint of the busiest two weeks of my spring. But the snowstorm allowed me an amazing opportunity to slow down... I just finished my homework (due Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon), read the submissions for my critique group (Wednesday night), and watched several episodes of LOST season five. My husband even did a good job finishing the house cleaning.

I'm going to Philadelphia tomorrow, so I feel like I can relax and enjoy myself.

But... it may actually look like I can write tonight, but I'm not sure I can. I have about three hours until bedtime. Can I conjure a writing mood after not writing creatively for a week? (And I wrote 5,000 words in the last 36 or so hours on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.)

Today was GLVWG. Our presenter couldn't get out of Manhattan, so we talked about cliché. So here's my thought for you:
If you write a cliché, that's fine, but before you leave it in your manuscript, really think about what you're trying to say and why the cliché fits. Then evaluate whether the cliché is really the best way to express it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein.

Some of my all-time favorite authors.

Okay, Tonio is my favorite. Hands down. No matter what you write or read, if you haven't enjoyed his prose, I encourage you to do so. The Little Prince is his masterpiece, but he wrote a variety of other books.

The Little Prince offers so much beauty and idealism and summary of how to live. It's prophetic and insightful and even satirical... It's hard for me to articulate thoughts.

But Tonio also wrote about his experiences in France during the interwar era and the second World War, so history buffs can enjoy him.

He also wrote novels about his experience as a pilot in the early days of aviation, so if you like plans, or want a tale of boys, machines and adventure, he's your man.

All of his work reads true to emotion, to life, and it's a good reminder of what we need to express as writers and the versatility that may be required to tell our stories. He's a multi-faceted, multi-talented man.

We all need to strive for that much depth in our lives. Not just as writers, but as people. Do we?

From wikipedia:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry[1] (French pronunciation: [ɑ̃twan də sɛ̃tɛɡzypeˈʀi]) (29 June 1900—31 July 1944) was a French writer and aviator. He is best remembered for his novella The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), and for his books about aviation adventures, including Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars.

He was a successful commercial pilot before World War II, joining the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force) on the outbreak of war, flying reconnaissance missions until the armistice with Germany. Following a spell of writing in the United States, he joined the Free French Forces. He disappeared on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean in July 1944.

While not precisely autobiographical, much of Saint-Exupéry's work is inspired by his experiences as a pilot. One exception is The Little Prince, a poetic self-illustrated tale in which a pilot stranded in the desert meets a young prince from a tiny asteroid. The Little Prince is a philosophical story, including societal criticism and remarking on the strangeness of the adult world.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Familiar Advice

My written French is sloppy. My favorite native French French professor at Moravian (who served as a rough template for Étienne, at least in terms of physical mannerisms) has a habit of not returning papers. I have heard over and over that my errors are small and that as my French continues to develop I'll work beyond them.

It's frustrating. I know I misuse pronouns and prepositions, but I can't tell you how, or how I need to fix them.

So, in January, I gave my ungraded papers to a native French French professor at Lafayette and asked he could help articulate my errors.

Last week, we sat in his office and read my paper on the modern French economy that was my take-home final exam. He did line edits and we talked about the words. 90 minutes of French grammar. I loved it.

As I sat there, most of the advice felt very familiar, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's the same "stuff" we deal with as writers...

  • He very apologetically told me my errors stemmed from French I. I have forgotten key bits of my foundation, taught twenty years ago. A language has a clearly-defined form, and often, at the time we learned it, we were not interested. When we realize we have ideas to express, we have to revisit those rules. We like to believe that grammar doesn't matter, that a writer has poetic license, that we'll write in our speaking voice. To master the craft, we must know our basic grammar. Without doubt or hesitation.
  • He asked me if I was interested in economics. The answer was a resounding 'no.' (And I cringed with memories of last semester's economics class.) I was writing about something that challenged me. As he pointed out, while he could decipher all my ideas and they were good ideas, he talked about the importance of knowing the language specific to the areas I wanted to talk about, the fields I might look to for a career. Then, I could learn the vocabulary that is unique to that field. English is the same. As writers, we have to learn a plethora of vocabulary for our stories. The occupations of our characters must ring true. So we need to learn their vocabulary.
  • He suggested reading written material that I would like to emulate. If I want to be a journalist in France, I have to read the newspaper (which, unlike here, they do not write articles in the past tense. They write in the historical past tense, a tense I avoid). If I want to be a poet, I should read Beaudelaire. Doing this would help me develop the proper vocabulary mentioned in the previous item AND develop my French syntax and style. Writers constantly are reminded to read the authors they like and to read widely in the genre they write.
  • He reminded me not to make my life difficult. When I'm reading those things I'm interested in, I need to note, either mentally or in a notebook, the words and phrases that I like, that sound French, that would improve my writing. Especially if I'm writing a reaction to a specific book, I should mimic the words and structure of that book, making the author's phrases my own. For the English writer, this would mean noting unusual words and how they are used. Similar to the earlier bit of advice, but this does include the idea of copying. Don't plagiarize, but use their words for practice, play with them.
  • Use native speakers. A native speaker will engage you and appreciate your efforts to learn the language in ways a non-native speaker can't. Of course, if you're in France, this means you're submitting yourself to unknown levels of abuse. For the English writer, this means finding people who have a mastery in areas you know you lack. Learning something as personal as language involves hurt, our feelings get bruised. That's okay.
  • Stop thinking in English, like an American. In the case of French, this means surrounding one's self with the language. Movies, music, books, news broadcasts, conversations... But for the writer, it means learning to think like an artist, which means surrounding one's self with similar things. As Jean-François put it: No matter how many drafts and edits you do, your thought process will always show.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ah, feet... Inspiration from life

"Her foot glided across the bed to his, her toes climbing, her ankle nuzzling into the depression beside his. "

That's my sentence. That might be all the writing I do today and if it is, I'm okay with that. I'm sick. I have laryngitis. My part-time job is exploding in my face. My kid needs a bath. The laundry needs attention. I have homework. And I have to play college kid with a series of appointments today-- like with a college writing associate to discuss the first draft of my seminar paper.

Because after 15 years in journalism I need help with a 3,000 word essay... I can edit and strengthen my paper on my own but one must play by the rules... Just like with an upcoming group project. These things never teach how to work with others... and they do play out like real life, with certain people meeting expectations and others tagging along, but really... an artificial context to assign group grades... because in the end individuals are always judged individually. [end rant]

Our own lives inspire us, n'est-ce pas? Our writing also inspires our lives. I know when I get done writing a spicy chapter, my husband reaps rewards. I swear that's the whole reason he feeds me that "You're happiest when you writing" line. I think we could easily substitute "orn" for the "app" in that word.

So, my characters aren't having any form of sex. And I was thinking about ways the depth and purity of their emotion could come through, without trite conversation, and without a physical connection. I have established that Étienne prefers to fall asleep with his hand on her hip (usually), but that doesn't carry the weight for the mutual love between them. That could also merely be habit.

The scene follows a conversation in the middle of the night about other topics. It follows a kiss that fell flat in some regards. It's Étienne's POV and he settles into bed as he normally does, he places his hand on her, she strokes it, and then...

"Her foot glided across the bed to his, her toes climbing, her ankle nuzzling into the depression beside his. "

And they go to sleep. I think it establishes the familiarity and the affection I'm seeking.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A new angle

At last year's The Write Stuff conference, I took a workshop with Karen Blomain in which we submitted a first chapter from a work-in-progress and then we literally cut it (with scissors) and rearranged it to explore other possibilities for where the story starts and other examinations of our own structure.

As a newspaper person, literary re-arranging didn't bother me and I found the act of tearing paragraphs apart (literally with my hands and ripping) quite therapeutic.

Now, I find myself struggling with a chapter and it irritates me and I find myself falling back on some of Blomain's techniques. Where does my story start? Or in this case, where does my chapter start? What do I need to convey?

More importantly, how else can I start it? Most of all I'm lacking momentum. I feel like once I find the beginning that works, the story unfolds naturally, especially since this is no longer a first draft.

I tried weaving some memories in with the character's (Étienne) present-day worries, using some of that imagery to symbolize the problems. It felt cliché. I'm tempted now to give him a nightmare, similar to his wife's nightmare a few chapters ago. Similar but different. Her nightmare was literally her subconscious tapping into the magic around her. His nightmare would use those same memories I used earlier to show his feelings... but they could have a quick exchange later about how "the house" is making it impossible for them to sleep.

I hate the idea, but I'm tempted to try it because everything else does not feel right.

As writers, we often push ourselves where we don't want to go.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An unorthodox goal

Saturday was my second PLRW meeting, the Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers, our local affiliate of the national Romance Writers of America.

I may have mentioned earlier, but at every meeting, members state a goal. The goal gets published in the newsletter and the next month, you must tell the group whether or not you met the goal and you get a smiley face or a frown face in the newsletter based on your performance.

I thought my goal was ambitious: successfully revise chapters 5-8 and get my schoolwork done. I did that, with close to two weeks to spare, but have spent almost three weeks on chapter nine now and it's not getting any better.

So, with the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, the Great Expectactions writing contests and my own expectations... I set an unorthodox goal and I made it official.

To adjust my attitude and write for fun.

Because I have met every ambitious goal I set for myself recently. And it's not helping.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Farewell Alexander McQueen

I, like many right now, am still stunned and saddened by the suicide of Alexander McQueen, a 40-year-old fashion great.

"Why are you writing about it here?" you may ask.

My book features the apparent suicide of a fashion icon. Watching the media react to this allows me to watch, celebrating voyeurism, as I see how the real fashion industry reacts.


I have not worked on my revisions to my second novel in several days. I spent Wednesday working on a paper for my Body Politics class, and then throughout Wednesday and Thursday I did allow myself to write scenes between my characters that wouldn't occur until 2018.

The first scene involved a mother, a father, a brother and a sister reacting to some unsettling news... and the fun was toying with their relationships. Mastering a father's disbelief, a mother's pragmatism, a brother's tendency to mock the situation and the narrator's teenage angst. A friend of mine comments that for an only child I tend to get many of these conversations very real, and I made a funny remark.

It's occurred to me that maybe they are real and I am imaginary.

My brain swirling with gender questions led to that conversation, and it had a very satisfactory conclusion. That gender identity and biological sex don't have to mean what we think they do. And since I have an outline for a story involving this young character that happens when she's 9, it's scary to think that there may be another in my head for "five years later." Isn't writing organic that way?

Of course, many of these ideas spurred by readings and homework never come to fruition. I haven't finished the short story about Mémère d'Amille taking in Jewish children during WWII, although I started it.

I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides during the last three days. Well-written, very rich in Greek culture, but the narrator glosses over his/her own situation, which leaves me wondering what the manuscript meant to achieve... I was disappointed that my questions were never answered and in a tome as thick as this, well, how do I end up so empty from the text?

What you read influences what you write. Both in style and theme. So, what do you read? Do you challenge yourself? We grow with the words, whether we write them or consume them.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing Vacation

I have been in a stressful patch with my writing, averaging less than 300 words a day. The scene I'm stuck on is part of the problem, some of the problem is also due to goals and expectations burning me out regarding the writing process.

Goals can be motivators, but sometimes if you get too wrapped up in reaching goals, you lose the fun.

I'm looking for the fun. I have ideas for short stories... but they're still connected to my novel, so I'm not sure whether I should allow myself to indulge. One is connected to the idea of Étienne's intersexual daughter, which is connected to one of my classes... So I might pursue that...

But this short little entry is to remind everyone: Keep it fun.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I react strongly.

It doesn't matter if you're my friend, my 'enemy,' my boss, my colleague, my husband, my mother, my daughter or no one of importance at all. I react strongly. People, in general, don't agree all the time and that means from a statistical standpoint, every person will not see eye to eye with someone at some point. It does not matter how much you love them, respect them, or how often you normally agree with them.

It will happen. The same process applies to writing. But let me finish explaining the above paragraph.

This week, I've experienced two incidents where I reacted strongly, three if you count the writing related one.

The first I blogged about earlier, where I asked who's rules we us in our writing. In defending proper grammar in a brochure for the office, my strong reaction and staunch defense of how to use the English language could have gotten me fired for insubordination. I was trying to maintain (or improve) our public image by using correct sentences, but the sentence structure didn't read write according to some others in the office, which to me meant it needed another round of editing, but the brochure was on deadline. End of story.

The second incident involved a friend. She did what she felt was necessary to alert a friend of mine that she felt harmed by an incident that happened months ago and involved me. I defended my friend who did the hurting. My friend, 'the victim,' now hates me for making this about me. I asked her if we could please talk about what had happened, because my other friend and I hurt her and her son, and I didn't want it to happen again.

She sent me angry, extremely long emails for 24 hours. And I told her I was willing to talk but I wouldn't email because in email I couldn't hear her voice, see her face, or read her body language. She reminded me that she had a problem with face-to-face confrontation and wouldn't be subjected to that. I didn't plan on confronting anyone. I wanted to listen. Even I can listen, if I know you're upset and have something to say.

She didn't like my strong reaction (in defending my friend). And we both used the incident to air some feelings that hurt each other. As friends, we were opposites in most mundane ways, in food, in tastes, in education. And the differences that once made our points-of-view interesting to each other, have now created hurtful difference. If she's not willing to talk to me, we can't fix it.

Both incidents revolve around reactions to words. If you want a calm, rational reaction, don't come near me. If you can handle passionate emotion, tell me whatever you want.

The same words will always cause different reactions in different people.

I told the following story to two of my friends. I told Tracy, my fashionista/photographer girlfriend, and Tiffani, my writer/mom of four kids girlfriend.

The tale:
After school today, all the kindergartners came out of the school, boys and girls, their faces stained with lipstick. Each family had been asked to send it the brightest lipstick they could find. For the 100th day of school, they applied their own lipstick and kissed a big paper heart 100 times. I told my daughter that when we got home she could wash her face with Mommy's special soap. This thrilled her.

A summary of Tiffani's reaction:
I can just see all those cute five-year-olds with their lipstick faces. How did your daughter's lipstick color work out?
(Tiffani is an Avon lady who helped me find a lipstick.)

A summary of Tracy's reaction:
I'm proud that she has taken an interest in proper skin care. It's never too early.
(Tracy recently took me to the store and helped me buy the 'special soap' and some moisturizers.)

I will never get the same reaction from any two people with the same words. We need to remember this in our writing. I got the judging sheets back from one of the writing contests I entered. Numerically, I scored well. My entry came back with lots of "nice" next to sentences and lots of comments about the uniqueness and the general good quality. And the potential in hot markets.

And I got several comments that completely contradicted each other. Instances where the three judges disagreed. One said 'this sucks.' The other said, 'I love this.' And the other didn't mention it at all. This, to me, qualifies as success. Because if two people were driven to a strong reaction, but a third didn't even notice, then I have done something that will make people think, potentially 66% of the time. As writers, we want to be noticed. We don't want to be ignored or forgotten.

I must admit, even with my critique group, I take writing so seriously that my feelings are attached to every word. I have to constantly remind myself that the comments don't bear nearly as much weight as I think they do, and as I tell my interns at the office, "if the words sound harsh it's because there's potential there for so much more."

One judge upset me because she took issue with three words in my 27-page entry that she felt were out-of-place. She accused me of picking these words randomly from a thesaurus. I don't use a thesaurus. I don't always use perfect words, and yes, I do sometimes misuse them. This hurts, because I always heard similar comments from newspaper editors. In that case, I used the words correctly but my editors thought the general public would need a dictionary to understand them.

The other reminders that people will always find mistakes in your work, no matter how you try to get it perfect... One judge spent some time arguing which car is faster, the Dodge Viper or the Mercedes CLK430. Another judge wrote me a paragraph about how you never iron napkins. (Étienne irons the napkins because he's nervous and he wants everything to be perfect.)

To say I have a lot on mind is an understatement.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Reading Challenge

My daughter came home with a reading challenge for school. The top readers in each grade level will get to have lunch with visiting author Michael Patrick O'Neal. My daughter (who, in half-day kindergarten, does not eat lunch at school) wants to win.

Reading is the first step to learning. It's the first step to any sort of education. It's pivotal if you wish to be well-spoken. And it's necessary if you wish to write.

The rules for this challenge say that as long as a book is in the child's hand, it counts.
  • Reading to your child counts
  • Your child reading independently counts
  • Reading directions on homework counts
  • Young children flipping through picture books counts
In the first five days, my child accumulated 215 minutes. She also wanted to know if _writing_ her own story counts. I told her she'd have to ask.

As soon as I finished this week's log and stuffed in it her folder, after she told me she was done reading, she sat and completed a phonics workbook I bought her for Christmas. Then, she did the time one, which isn't reading, but we did have to read the directions. Then she said she was done and wanted to play. What did she play? She read to her dolls.

So, since she "finished" reading, she's read an additional 40 minutes.

But this is the child who used to carry a phone book through the grocery store and read the yellow pages as a preschooler. This is the child who asked her grandmother to read her the thesaurus. This is the child who has sat beside her father and heard every one of the Harry Potter books.

I can read a lot, but even when I'm not busy, I don't read nearly as much as perhaps I should. I think my standards are too high. I like to read good books, and I force myself to read the big trend books. But... I can't relax my adoration of the language to read crap books.

Is that bad?

In my history class, our reading includes a section about the French attitude toward the superiority and the purity of their language over others. They also say that English is a very easy language to speak poorly and that as English speakers we tolerate people speaking our language incorrectly. I concur 100%. How about you?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Who's rules are you writing by?

I finished (so I hope) two brochures for work today. Several of us had a disagreement regarding whether on-the-hour times should read:
  • 8 a.m.
  • 8:00 a.m.
  • 8:00 A.M.
Now, the first on the list is Associated Press/newspaper style.

Which got me explaining the important of knowing what "style" we wish to convey as an organization and sticking to that style. We also discussed:
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration
  • Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration
I felt the insertion of one comma mimicked addressing a person or an envelop, which we're not doing here. I felt no comma was best and two commas felt like creating "Jr." as an appositive phrase that could be removed...

So, who's rules were we trying to follow? Associated Press? Chicago? Etiquette? Our own?

And from there, I pondered who's rules I tried to follow when I write. We must write for ourselves, I've covered that before. But we all impose rules on what we do. First person or third. Third limited or omniscient. Can prepositions end a sentence? Show don't tell.

(Yet, many big commercial authors have no grammar skills and don't follow any rules.)

We want to write by rules of agents and editors. We worry what rules of theme and plot we can break without distancing readers. How much sex is okay?

Last night, my critique group read my new chapter one of Courting Apparitions. They thought it worked, but it raised the following questions:
  • Do the frankness of the discussions between the two men, followed by the kissing/greetings rituals of the French make the main character seem bisexual?
  • Would a typical American reader lose all sympathy for the main character if it is revealed that he was tricked into sleeping with a 15-year-old girl?
The answers were interesting, and made me realize how taboos/rules/expectations of society factor into the rules of writing...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I forgot

I have posted that I would write in this blog Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays. Yesterday I forgot. I thought of it at work, but that's not the time nor place. Then I thought of it at home when I was in bed, and I thought my compulsion to go get a computer and write an entry quick was a sign that maybe I should let it go.

So I planned to do it first thing this morning.

With a kid who had a cough that kept us all up most of the night and the four-times-daily pink eye drops, I forgot AGAIN.

And now I'm just flummoxed.

Isn't that how writing often goes? We makes goals and deadlines and often miss them, not because we're lazy, but because life gets in the way. Well, the reality is, these 'failures' are okay, as long as you're only disappointing yourself and not an agent or editor. What matters is whether we use one 'failure' to alter our goals or deadlines. It's like New Year's resolutions or a diet... It's only a true failure if you allow one mistake to derail you. You have to keep at it, no matter how many times you disappoint yourself.