Thursday, December 31, 2009

Saying Goodbye to 2009

Last post of the year and I want to thank everyone who has visited my blog and web site, added comments, and taken the time to buy and read my books. Thank you so much! I appreciate each and every one of you.

2009 was a year of huge achievements for me. The short list includes:

  • Publishing The Great Scarab Scam and Better Than Perfect.
  • Maintaining this blog.
  • Taking a refresher clay class and becoming so inspired I bought my own kiln.
  • Traveling to Frankfurt, Germany in April and Portland, Oregon in November.
  • Joining Twitter (!).
  • Sharing a year's worth of company and inspiration with my writing group.
  • Learning all about art journals and even starting one.
  • Editing an important nonfiction book for a writing client (and meeting my deadline).
  • Writing all 50,000 Nanowrimo words on time and actually finishing the manuscript--hurray!
As I close out this post, I also want to say a big thank you to all the writers, artists, and mentors who have encouraged me to stay on the creative path and to never give up. I want to pass that same message on to you. No matter how difficult your day or year may seem, take at least 30 minutes out of your 24/7 to write at least one page, cut out some pictures from a magazine, or sketch a few gesture drawings. Always honor your creative spirit and never make it "second" or "third" or "last of all" on your to-do list. Wishing you a happy and safe New Year's Eve and a wonderful 2010. See you next year!
Tip of the Day: List your 2009 achievements and successes. I know you must have dozens of them. Congratulate yourself on a job well done!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favorite Reads of 2009

My favorite books this year are mainly the ones I found at the library or bookstore by sheer chance and lovely coincidence. 2009 was also the year I probably read fewer books than at any other time in my life except for my first three when I was still illiterate. The problem was that in between publishing my own books, The Great Scarab Scam and Better Than Perfect (definitely favorites of the year!) and working full time, I was usually too tired to get beyond page one of many of the books I tried to read. A plot or subject had to be pretty compelling to get my attention this year and the following books are what pulled me in and kept me reading right through till the end.

Best Fiction: Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami.
I had been waiting to read this book for a long time, ten years! I found a copy at the library by accident while I was looking for an entirely different title, don’t ask me what. Seeing a few of Murakami’s books on the bottom shelf reminded me that I had wanted to read Norwegian Wood but had never got around to it. This particular library copy was a miserable, stained, dog-eared, and torn paperback I would normally pass up on hygiene reasons alone, but I wanted to read it so badly I ignored my squeamishness. Norwegian Wood was first recommended to me by some friends who belonged to a Japanese book club in Atlanta. Japanese fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. Ever since I discovered Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse as a teenager, once again perusing the shelves of a small, suburban library in Auckland, New Zealand, I’ve been hooked. I love the straightforward clean prose of Japanese authors, and I’m intrigued by their somewhat harsh, maybe even nihilistic outlook. Japan has always been a country I have wanted to travel to, perhaps because of my reading. Norwegian Wood lived up to all my expectations: dark, stark, and the equivalent of reading very pure jazz. I never wanted it to end. Now I want to go to Japan more than ever.

Best Poetry (and Nonfiction, too): Rilke and Andreas-Salome; A Love Story in Letters. Translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler. I love Rilke’s poetry but had no intention of buying this book until the night my book club got yelled at. For some inexplicable reason the management of the bookstore where we used to meet went ballistic that night, saying we “took up space and never bought anything.” Not true! I still dread going to my book club every month because I always come home with an armload of books. While explaining this to the manager, I picked up the nearest book in the store and said, “See? I’m buying this one right now!” I grabbed a purple sketchbook as well just to make my point, and I’ve been delighted with both purchases ever since. But boy was I mad. Still seething all the way home, I had no idea what I had bought except that it was something about Rilke. And what a something it turned out to be: a biography in letters filled with poetry, heartache, longing, and a lot of complaining. Rilke was very whiney, as well as fascinating, a genius, and a poet without equal. Lou Andreas-Salome, the recipient of his letters, was spectacular in her own right, too. Many of her letters back to Rilke are also included. This book is truly a keeper.

Best Rediscovered Classic: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. This was a book club selection and when it was first announced no one other than the member who had chosen it wanted to read it. No way were we going back to tenth-grade English class and besides “we all knew the story.” Or so we thought. Re-reading Wuthering Heights was a shocking experience to say the least. When I first read it at fifteen, I thought it was romantic, rebellious, and exciting. As an adult—the book was horrifying! Hateful, spiteful, vicious characters locked in a macabre dance of fate and misogyny; I was compelled to read every line. The Brontes were freaks of nature. Where they really came from, what planet they were channeling, and how they wrote so well will be always be a mystery I’ll never be able to solve. (And I do know "Bronte" should have an umlaut over the "e." I just couldn't find how to get it there!!)

Honorable Mentions: The year wouldn’t have been complete without The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. I loved both of these books. The Other Boleyn Girl was beautifully written, and despite years and years of reading books on Henry VIII and his many wives, I couldn't stop reading this one. I just had to “find out what happens” as if somehow the events of history were going to miraculously change and reveal an entirely different ending. I kept telling myself I was nuts to be so glued to such a familiar story, but Gregory’s writing is compulsive. The Gargoyle was special in that it was such a surprise: lyrical storytelling combined with the horrors of a burn ward; not a combination I would ever have thought readable let alone likeable or entertaining. While some parts were difficult to read through (warning: the descriptions of injury and pain are graphic) they were well worth the effort. A book I won’t soon forget.

Tip of the Day: It’s the holidays! Give in to your cravings and read like there’s no tomorrow. Reading fills a writer’s soul. The need to read should always be honored and respected.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rewriting the Fairy Tale; Little Goldie

Baby Bear wanted to keep her.

“Papa,” I said, “we’ve spoiled that child. He’s had the comfiest chair, the smoothest porridge, the best bed. But I draw the line at blond girls who don’t know better than to break into a stranger’s house and mess up my housekeeping. He can’t have everything his heart desires, you know.”

Baby wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Instead, he threw one royal fit. He was growing up and I didn’t like the look in his eyes or the way he flashed his claws--reckless and sharp as razors. He was always leaving huge marks on the door frames we’d just had varnished not two months ago.

“No,” I said, dodging those claws. “You cannot keep her.”

Goldilocks pretended to be asleep. But she couldn’t fool me. I’d seen her kind before: cunning behind those Shirley Temple curls, those dimples, those shiny Mary Janes. I knew what a girl like that could do with her “Yes, ma’ams” and “No, ma’ams.” She wasn’t coming to live with us, no thank you.

Papa Bear ignored the whole thing. Instead, he left in a huff and went back to the woods. After that, it was just me and the girl and Baby, except he wasn’t a baby anymore. Frankly, I was afraid of him. I was almost ready to give him the girl and be done with it. Then I thought of what it might be like making porridge and feather beds for the two of them and what about down the road? Who could say they’d stop at two? “No,” I said. “You cannot keep her.”

It was no good. She stayed anyway and it was just like I thought. My porridge was always cold from rushing around waiting on those two lugs and making sure everything was “just right” for Little Miss.

Things went from bad to worse. That fancy pinafore was just one long streak of mud before those long curls became as tangled as a bird’s nest. I felt sorry for her then, what with Baby Bear tormenting her day and night, bringing her centipedes and crawfish, farting and burping and pulling her hair. She was just pitiful in the end. When he got bored with her, he threw her to me while he went out to join his father.

I tried to clean her up but I was too clumsy. “Run away, little girl,” I crooned into her mossy ear. “Run away or I’ll blow your house down.”

“That’s the wrong story,” she said.

“Well, if you’re so smart, sing your own damn song.” She grabbed the brush and turned her back on me. I wanted to spit, but all I said was, “Look here, missy. You just stay out of my way and we’ll get on fine.”

A half hour later I saw her out there in the yard eating those centipedes and crawdads. The look on her face was terrible. I could tell she hated every bite but I also knew there was something she was trying to feed. Those cubs were taking their toll on her, but there was nothing I could do.

By the time the cubs were born I knew she wasn’t right in the head anymore. “Don’t you even want to name them?”

“You can call them Hansel and Gretel for all I care.”

I looked down at Hansel and Gretel. Talk about the wrong story. Gretel was as gold and wooly as a little lamb. Hansel looked good enough to eat. They sure were cute, more’s the pity when I knew what I had to do--sell ‘em and recoup my housekeeping expenses. That Bo Peep was always crying about how she’d lost her sheep, and everyone knew the Beast’s wife lived to take on lost causes. Nobody would blame me for doing a good deed. Before I could think too much about it, I bundled the cubs in blankets from Baby Bear’s own bed then carried them into town.

I took the first offer I got--a handful of beans from a woman leading a brindle cow. It wasn’t much, but the way I saw it, at least with a cow the cubs would never go hungry. I didn’t want to tell Papa about what might not be seen as the world’s best deal, so when I got home I just threw the beans out the window. Looking back, I think providence was guiding my paw.

As soon as the first stalk appeared, Little Goldie was off in a flash. I never saw a creature climb with the speed of that child. Maybe whoever’s up there will have better luck getting her tidied up and talking sense. Anything’s better than what she got here.

It’s been three weeks while I sit in the shade of my vines, everyone gone. I’ve taken the best bed for myself and my porridge always turns out perfect. Baby and Papa are off somewhere in the woods. It’s no concern of mine; they can drink swamp water for all I care. Sometimes I can almost believe there really is a place called Happily Ever After.

Tip of the Day: It’s fun to play with fairy tales, turning them upside down and inside out. Try taking one of your favorites and rewriting it to a different beat. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here? First Round of Nanowrimo Revisions

Yay! Nanowrimo is over. Congratulations to all those who reached 50K! I managed to scrape over the finishing line on Sunday night and what a relief it was, too. But as I mentioned in my last post, despite reaching a 50K word count, Ghazal is still very much incomplete. But not for long. I’m devoting the whole of December to getting it finished and then it’s on to tackling the first stage of revisions.

Because Ghazal was based on a series of random word and photo prompts, it’s also a bit of a mess (read "total disaster area.") I have a lot of work to do and the following checklist is what needs to be done before I can move on to rewriting and wordsmithing.

1. Make sure this first draft is really finished. No matter how full of loose ends, blank space, and dangling heroines I may end up with—I want to do my best to tell a complete story. It’s too easy to hide the manuscript away because I don’t know where the story is going, and rewriting too soon or before I reach the end is a sure way to never get there. So I want to keep writing for a few weeks.

2. As soon as I know I truly have reached “The End” the first thing I want to do is analyze and flesh out my characters: who are they, do they have their correct names, where do they live, and why do I care about them? This will be the time I write up their biographies and detailed back stories, merge some secondary characters into one, and even get rid of some altogether.

3. Conflict. Do I have enough? I always ask myself three questions: What is the outer story conflict? What is the inner story conflict? And how are they resolved? Knowing the answer to these three will automatically write the bulk of my synopsis for me.

4. Setting, or is my story really where I want it to be? Why did I choose these particular locales? If you’re like me and have written huge blocks of description to help boost your word count, hey—keep those descriptions handy! What you want to do is separate them from the places where they are slowing down your action and set them aside for later. When you begin your serious page-by-page rewrite you can then chop them up and sprinkle in a few lines at a time to add color and context to your various scenes.

4. Research. I’ll make a list of everything I need to find out and where I need to go to get this information.

5. Details. Highlight all those wonderful and unique details and look for story symbols: e.g., an old umbrella, a favorite book, a child’s blanket. Items such as these can represent the story theme and should never be overlooked as “minor.” Note: If you can’t find a story symbol in the pages you’ve written or you don’t like the ones you do have, make at least one up now. Story symbols can be the basis of some of your most poignant and/or important scenes.

6. Search for a theme. Themes used to give me a lot of trouble. I never wanted to think of them, probably a leftover from being assigned too many uninspired school essays or cringing from the smug little morals at the end of clich├ęd children’s books. But I’ve since discovered that a good theme is simply what your characters, especially your main characters, have learned in the course of the story. The trick is to not make it obvious, with someone saying at the end of the book: “And I’ll never play with matches again!”

7. My final task is to decide on my genre. Once again, because Nanowrimo is based on writing like crazy to achieve a desired word count, it’s easy to mesh and confuse genres to the point of absurdity. Now is the time to figure out where my book will fit on a bookstore shelf. I want to say “literary” but I find I’m more drawn to “experimental” or even “graphic novel” because I’m playing with the idea of including artwork. The point is to find and settle on one genre that best describes the book and to then focus all future rewriting toward that market. Once that’s done I’ll be changing or eliminating any scenes and chapters that no longer serve that genre.

Tip of the Day: The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is my book designed to go with my series of writing workshops. Much of the book covers how to organize and plan your writing along the same lines I’ve discussed above: e.g., creating character bios, finding the conflict in your manuscript, and going to market. In many ways it's an entire workshop in a book. Check out a copy today!