Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Round-Up, 2010

I love to read--probably way too much, but as another year comes to a close, I am filled with gratitude for all the wonderful books that made my time spent reading extra-special.  I don't think I read a single book I didn't like on some level, but as always there are some books that stand out for me and that I know I'm going to remember for the rest of my life.  So in no particular order, I'd like to share with you the best of the best.  These are:

Best Novel A Valley of Betrayal (Chronicles of the Spanish Civil War, Book 1)  by Tricia Goyer.  If it wasn't for Twitter,  I don't think I would have had the opportunity to learn about Tricia and her excellent books.  So I'm delighted to have a venue to tell you all how much I enjoyed discovering her entire list of titles.  For my initial purchase I chose A Valley of Betrayal, the first in a trilogy set during the time of the Spanish Civil War.  I based my choice on the fact that  although I have a degree in Spanish literature, I actually know very little about the civil war beyond the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  However, thanks to the wonderful characters and strong writing in A Valley of Betrayal, my understanding of who was fighting whom, and why, was greatly enhanced and deepened.  The characters and plot line were so compelling that immediately upon finishing the book I had to zoom back to and order the next two in the series, and needless to say, they are just as good as the first book.

Best Young Adult Novel The Luxe by Anna Godbersen.  From the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, I then plunged into the social whirl of Manhattan 1899.  What a wild ride that was!  And what a super book this is for teen readers of all ages--and who isn't a teenager somewhere in their secret heart of hearts?  The Luxe is another book that is part of a longer series of four (I seem to have been drawn to series this year, probably because the writing was so good in all of them I couldn't stop at just one book).  The best way I can describe this particular title is by saying it's like Little Women with bad girls meets Project Runway a la Henry James and Edith Wharton.  The clothes, the settings, the misbehaving characters...   I was totally captivated, and of course I cried buckets at the end.

Best Short Story Collection Cliffs of Fall: And Other Stories by Shirley Hazzard.  Hazzard is one of my favorite writers, so when I learned of this collection I just had to read it.  Many of the troubled relationship themes presented here are ones that are explored in more depth in Hazzard's novels, but as little stand-alone pieces--sometimes no more than a sketch or a vignette--they are quite perfect.  A keeper, for sure.

Best Novella The Tropics: Child of a Storm - Caught in a Rip - Hurricane Secret by Mary Deal.  Several months back I wrote an entire post about this incredible book which contains three related novellas (series, again!).  You can read the post here, but before you do, I just wanted to mention that Mary also has some fabulous island- and tropical-themed photography that is the perfect complement to her writing.  I knew she was a talented writer, but seeing her photography and has brought my memories of her stories to vivid life.  Exquisite! 

Best Nonfiction People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck.  I hope you never encounter genuine evil in your life, but if you do, this is the best book on the subject I have ever read.  For many years I have struggled with the question:  Is there really such a thing as evil?  And for just as long I have tried to think of so-called evil people as "crazy" or "willful and stupid."  After reading this book, I am now convinced that evil does exist and that there can be no other explanation for some people's behavior.  The book is also an excellent resource if you are a writer, and can help you to understand that there is a very real difference between the story villain or antagonist who simply "does bad things" and the character intent on destruction.  Highly recommended.

Best Poetry Return from Erebus by Julia McCarthy.  Ah. Poetry.  'Fess up, all:  When's the last time you picked up a book of poetry and read it from cover to cover?  If it's been a while, here's the perfect book to get back into what I consider poetry with a capital P, aka "the real thing."  Not some pretty lines strung together or journal entries broken into verse or opening a vein and seeing what happens on the page, but seriously structured language that delivers surprise after surprise.  Reading Julia's work is like opening some kind of wonderful origami puzzle box that with each new unfolding  leaves you astonished at the rightness of it all.  Buy this book.  Now!

Special Mention Necklace of Kisses: A Novel by Francesca Lia Block.  Weetzie Bat and her extended family have long been some of my favorite characters ever.  For a long time I resisted reading Necklace of Kisses because I didn't want to think of Weetzie as a grown-up.  Now I think I was supposed to wait because every so often the right book falls into your hands at the right time.  Soon after returning from a trip to Los Angeles, I found this book on sale at Borders for a dollar.  How could I refuse?  From the minute I started reading it felt like I had just walked or driven through every scene described in the book, the same places I had explored as a child and teenager long before Block even started writing.  Block's descriptions of Los Angeles are, in my opinion, the best ever written and after reading them I was compelled to devote a dozen or so pages in my art journal to record and collage my own impressions.  This story is sheer magic and that enchantment has stayed with me all year.  Loved it!    

Tip of the Day:  It's fun to keep a record of your reading.  It's also a valuable exercise to discover what your reading tastes are and why.   I like to save a few pages in the back of my journal to jot down titles, authors, and a couple of lines about why I liked (or didn't like) a book.  Not only is this good information to share with my book club and reading friends, but it helps me define my publishing niche.  For 2011 it might be a good idea to start an entire journal to keep track of the year's books. 

In the meantime, Happy 2011, everyone--wishing you a great new year of books, writing, and creativity!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Hope this finds you all ready to celebrate the holiday with joy and a renewed sense of childlike wonder.  Because that's what I consider the best gift of the season:  our chance to get in touch once again with our child-s(elf), the one who believes in miracles, hope, and universal goodness.

Like many people, Christmas holds a lot of memories for me:  funny, confused, sad, exuberant.  The memories cover a lot of ground, things like the time I wasn't allowed to be a reindeer in my first-grade Christmas pageant, and instead had to be a "stationary snowflake."  I remember feeling so crushed:  reindeers got to wear antlers made out of tin foil and run around the auditorium, two by two.  All I got to do was stand still and wave a tissue paper snowflake--a TORN tissue paper snowflake.  Then there was the year my little brother was born the week before Christmas and my grandparents were staying in the house with us as well as my chain smoking "Auntie Mame" who'd come to seek refuge in between divorces (complicated story).  I guess we were too jam-packed in our little house:  the adults suddenly had a scream-fest, knock-down, "you're gonna get it" argument over towels of all things, and I remember hiding under my bed and thinking Christmas wasn't supposed to be like this.

But then there were the other years when the cookies got baked, the fireplace worked, and even the California weather cooperated by being cold enough  for us to wear sweaters and have a "real Christmas."  Those were the good years, and I still remember the thrill of opening my favorite presents:  books.  Heidi, The Wind in the Willows, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Around the World in Eighty Days...  Oh, how I loved, and cherished, those books.  I still do!  In fact, I'm going to go re-read one of them in a few minutes.

And that brings me to what I guess I really wanted to say here, that a great portion of how we enjoy the holidays rests on the memories and traditions we bring to them, and no matter how bizarre those memories are, they can be turned into something special and meaningful through our writing and artwork.  Every time we pick up a pen or a paintbrush, we have the opportunity to go back and help that little child-s(elf) to have the happiest life, or birthday, or Christmas, or Hanukkah ever.  So go out there and spread joy to the world with your creative spirits.  It's been an honor to have you all visiting my blog this past year; thank you each and every one!

Tip of the Day:  What are your holiday memories?  Perhaps you'd like to start recording them in some special way, either through writing or artwork, or both!  Whatever you choose, I wish you all a great day tomorrow of good times, good friends, and good memories.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Art Journal Wrap, 2010

Now that Nanowrimo is over for the year (at least for me), I took the extra time these last few days to finish up the two art journals I have been working on since New Year's Day. For my final entry, I decided to write about what I had gained from keeping these volumes--it was a lot! For instance: 

- Art journals gave my writer's group a purpose and a theme to keep us all focused on a shared creative goal. For 2010 we chose "Travel," mainly because there were so many ways we could interpret the word, from actual on-the-road traveling, to individual life journeys, to placing our fictional characters in unknown and foreign settings, e.g. Paris, 1930. Travel also gave us a multi-faceted prompt for the accompanying artwork we created. 

- From the class and the journals, I gained confidence in art making. I could experiment (and fail) without having to explain or apologize for why things "looked the way they looked." In his book, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out, poet Sandford Lyne refers to journals as private studios. In my art journal, I could experiment in private. 

- Art journaling for 30 minutes before working on my WIP, or before making a piece of pottery, centered me. It was meditative and helped me to get rid of the "noise" I sometimes find following me into my work space, you know, things like, "Buy milk. Reply to e-mail." 

- Art journaling gave me a weekly class to attend over the summer; I love being a student. Homework assignments encouraged me to keep journaling. 

- I felt part of a community of art journalers. I am so inspired by these creative souls. 

- I found a wonderful way to outline my writing--with pictures. Although I have always used magazine cut-outs to illustrate my characters, scenes, and especially my book cover mock-ups, this year I found I was able to go much deeper. By creating multiple collages that followed my plot chapter by chapter, I was able to express my story visually before I wrote it. When it came to the actual writing, it seemed to just flow straight from the pictures. 

- I gained a lot of insight into what I believe is the future of the book, especially with the increased use of e-readers. I feel certain that books are eventually going to be illustrated throughout with both still and moving pictures. Working with an art journal is a great way to prepare for what may be the next step for all of us who write. 

- Looking for ways to make my art journal interesting, I learned techiques I would never have tried before: rubber stamping; colored pencil on black and white photocopies; drawing and painting onto backgrounds such as papyrus and mulberry paper. 

- Which also meant I learned some new techniques to share in my own workshops. 

- And because I had to go shopping to buy these fun items, I had no excuses for avoiding Julia Cameron-style "artist's dates." 

- My finished art journals have given me some deeply personal, but quite wonderful "picture books" for my own appreciation and enjoyment. 

Reaching the last pages of these two latest art journals was much more emotional than I thought it would be, similar to the end of any great adventure that took me to places I never thought I'd go, but that also turned out to be some of the best times of my life. 

There have been so many journals of various types throughout my life, each one completely different and each one my "favorite" in some way or another starting with the first lined, spiral notebook I bought in London from Boots the Chemists on Regent Street. In it I wrote about friend and author Hugh Cook and his raincoat (well, he did tell me to keep character notes!); I wrote about someone's gray eyes that later were assigned to the character of Ravenna in my book Better Than Perfect; I wrote the story that I'm still writing over and over every day of my life--the story of me. Every character, thought, idea, setting that has been a part of my novels, my poems, my drafts, my screenplays, my Christmas cards has come from my journals. What would I do without them? 

Tip of the Day: Wondering what to give for the holidays this year? Art journal supplies can open a beautiful world for someone special. Maybe even you!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nanowrimo Week 5--Hey, What Week 5?

Yes, there really is a Week 5.  I call it: Getting Life Back on Track After Nanowrimo.  And the first thing I want to do is congratulate everyone who reached--and passed--that 50K goal (me, too!).  Good job, writers.  Good job, also, to those who did their best to stay with the program but for one reason or another found themselves lagging behind.  Take heart; you've got some word counts you didn't have before the month started, and with any luck you have some great ideas and plot lines to keep working on until you reach The End.

For the five years I've participated in Nanowrimo, not one year has been like the other.  Not just because I wrote wildly different types of stories and worked in various genres, but because of what I wanted to do in Week 5.  Some years I continued to work furiously to add on another 50K words.  Other years I just wanted to read and sleep.  This year I want to put my manuscript to bed and carry on writing the WIP I was working on in October.  To do that I still have to place my Nanowrimo pages in binders, make some notes to remind me what the story is actually about for when I do go back to it, and I need to spend some serious time re-reading the earlier WIP.  I also want to evaluate some of the things I learned from yet another month of non-stop, first draft writing:
  1. Not everyone wants to write novels.  And that's okay.  More than once I found myself reassuring writer friends and student newbies that it's fine to discover you're a nonfiction writer at heart.  Follow your passion--write what compels you to keep going.
  2. We all have different endurance levels.  There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to the word counts we "should" have finished by the end of each writing session.
  3. Self-discipline and scheduling; what works, what doesn't?  If Nanowrimo encouraged you to find the perfect time of day to write, don't let go of that.  Cut out everything else, but save that precious slice of time when you're at your most productive level.
  4. Subject matter and genre.  My Nanowrimo story, Into the Woods, was a murder mystery.  While I enjoyed the foray into puzzle-solving and giving my characters dark secrets, I still found myself wanting to break the rules.  When it comes to fiction, I'm a literary writer at heart and my job is to stay true to everything that means.
  5. Writer's groups.  While I was writing, I kept thinking how much I would have enjoyed learning from other mystery writers.  When I'm ready to start my rewrite, I plan to look for a mystery critique group.  You might want to explore joining a group that supports your new-found genre, too.
  6. Then again, because of my "rule-breaking" I found myself being something of a lone wolf.  Writing without critiques from others might be the best way for you to trailblaze your own original path.
  7. Writing tools.  My Alphasmart Neo was, yet again, my lifesaver.  I love that little machine.  I also found I loved orange ink, calligraphy pens, and the most expensive legal pads money can buy.
  8. How do you react under pressure, otherwise known as "a deadline"?  For some reason, I felt incredibly unpressured this year.  It could have been because I was also at my most prepared:  outline, character bios, and backstories were all in place before November 1.
  9. There's no room for perfectionism in Nanowrimo, and there's no room for it in any first draft.  "Just write, don't think" should be our mantra every time we sit down to write any draft.
  10. Sleep is highly over-rated--at least when you want to reach a goal.  I got up an extra hour earlier than usual each day and not only did I improve my word count, I think I felt more productive all day long.  I've decided to stick with this new schedule and I'm excited about it.
  11. What are your "avoidance" tactics to stay away from writing?  This year I was pretty good about putting my writing first, but there was one day when I decided to wash the kitchen curtains instead.  Writing would have been much more fun, I can assure you.
  12. Renewed knowledge that yes, I can do it, you can do it, we all can do it.  We're writers.  Given a task, we deliver.  And that is the one and only secret to getting published:  words on pages.
Tip of the Day:  National Novel Writing Month is intense, exhilarating, fun, and draining.  Give yourself a break for at least a week:  read, rest, doodle, dream; and if you do want to keep writing--pamper yourself along the way, you deserve it!