Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bill Henderson Joins the Dickens Challenge

The Dickens Challenge continues to spark interest and we have yet another writer on board. Chapters 1 and 2 are and up and posted and I'm excited about this new novel. Please welcome Bill Henderson as our newest Dickens Challenger!

Bill Henderson is a professional novelist, screenwriter, documentarian, and all-around media maven who worked with the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s written and had published a memoir and two novels, one of which, “I Killed Hemingway,” was a NYT Notable Book of the Year in 1993. He now teaches writing in North Carolina and runs a writing website at His DICKENS CHALLENGE novel, Regenerating Jeff, began life as an obsession (sound familiar, anyone?) and can be read at

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Praise You

It's best if you watch the video before reading on if you have a couple of minutes.

Confession time. I love Fat Boy Slim and this song always makes me want to get up and dance. It's late and I'm not going to spend much time writing this post, but after witnessing the outpouring of support for the phenomenal online event in support of Patry Francis today, I couldn't get this song out of my head.

The first time I saw this "dance troupe" perform, it was on the Grammy Awards. They were introduced as the Torrance Community Dancers (or something like that) and I'm sure the rest of the people watching their performance on the award show were like me, utterly confused and yet somehow touched to see this group of amateurs doing their thing.

It wasn't until several years later that I found out that the Torrance Community Dancers were a fictional group put together by the lead "dancer", music video producer Spike Jonze.

I wish I could have continued believing these were real people who had the courage to get up in front of the world and do something that brought them joy. This video was filmed in front of a movie theater in Southern California (Westwood, I think) and neither the manager of the theater, who tried to shut them down midway through, nor the waiting crowd knew that this wasn't an actual local group.

I love that the crowd boos the manager for trying to end the performance and cheers the dancers as they go through their awkward moves. The only person in the crowd who actually laughs at them is Fat Boy Slim -- also the only one who knows what's going on. You can see him briefly look into the camera when he walks behind Spike Jonze at the end of the video.

Sometimes I feel like one of those dancers and because of the kindness of a whole lot of online strangers who've become friends, my awkward moves and missteps don't embarrass me or make me feel bad. I feel like I can just keep on dancing.

The Liar's Diary Blog Day and Giveaway

Patry Francis was the catalyst for me to commit to fiction writing and to start blogging. I read The Liar’s Diary when it was released in hardback and Patry was the first author I ever felt compelled to email. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t stop thinking about her characters, and to this day I really never have. The story and the writing drew me in so deeply that I was thinking about them and talking about them for days afterward. To my complete surprise, Patry responded to my email and she has been a friend and an inspiration ever since.

I was going to craft my own post for this incredible event today, but Susan Henderson has generously given us all permission to use her content and for that I thank her. It is much better than anything I would have written.

Before moving on to what this is all about, I want to say that I've read and highly recommend this book and I will send a copy to the first five people who comment. If you love it as much as I did, please write up a review and post it on Amazon, your blog or wherever you'd like.

The following entry was written by Susan Henderson at Litpark here:

Today, over 300 bloggers, including bestsellers, Emmy winners, movie makers, and publishing houses have come together to talk about THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis. Why? To give the book the attention it deserves on its release day while Patry takes the time she needs to heal from cancer.

Before I talk about this book, I'd like to tell you a story about how this extraordinary day happened.

First, you need to know something about Patry Francis.

What if you worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to your husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, you dared to dream that one day you might write a book? This is the story of my friend, Patry - a story that leaves out years of false starts, revisions, and rejection slips. It's a story that writers know intimately, though the details are different. Every one of us is well acquainted with the struggle of getting a story on paper, of honing it and believing in it enough to send it out, only to receive rejection, or worse, silence for our efforts.

Imagine, after many years, you beat the odds. You finish that book. You find that agent who sells your manuscript. Your dream is about to become a reality. But just as your book is due to be released, you discover you have an aggressive form of cancer.

Patry's story struck such a deep chord with many of us, not just because she is our friend, but because those of us who know her or read her blog have relied on her company through the ups and mostly downs of trying to write and sell a book. She is our buoy. She has shown us time and again her great gift for shedding light in the dark. Even her blog post about her cancer showed this - in her greatest time of need, she was still somehow comforting all of us and showing us glimpses of joy.

Patry is part one of this amazing story.

THE LIAR'S DIARY in paperback.

Now you need to know something about Laura Benedict:

On New Year's Day, or thereabouts, Laura wrote to me, calling my attention to Patry's publication date. "Perhaps we could do a 'Patry Francis/Liar's Diary' blog-o-rama or carnival or something to promote the book?" she wrote. "I'm such an amateur at this stuff that I don't know what's possible."

I didn't give a moment's thought to what we might try to pull off, or how; I simply said, "Yes! Let's do it!"

It's very important to me that Laura is recognized for her initial gesture - not just because she's a great and generous woman, but because it says something about the strength of the heart over the kinds of power most of us are without. When you see the amazing outpouring of support and the high-profile people who joined this effort, remember it started with one small voice.

Laura is part 2 of this amazing story.

THE LIAR'S DIARY in hardcover.

Now let's talk about you:

In less than one month, over 300 bloggers, writers, readers, and just big-hearted people signed on to take part in this day. I am overwhelmed and grateful for every single person who said yes or helped spread the word, but let me reserve some enormous thanks for the people who traded hundreds of emails with me to put this together: Karen Dionne of Backspace, Jessica Keener of Agni and The Boston Globe, Dan Conaway of Writers House, and Alice Tasman of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency.

What began as a personal gesture of caring for a friend became an astonishing show of community - writers helping writers; strangers helping strangers; and most surprising of all, editors, agents and publishers, who have no stake in this book, crossing "party lines" to blog, to make phone calls, and to send out press releases.

This effort has made visible a community that is, and has been, alive and kicking - a community that understands the struggle artists go through and rejoices in each other's successes. It's a community made up of many small voices, but - guess what? - those many small voices can create some noise. So while today is for Patry, it's also a symbolic gesture for all of you who work so very hard for little or no recognition, for all of you who keep going despite the rejections, and for all of you who have had illness or other outside factors force your art or your dreams aside. We are in this together.

Time to talk about THE LIAR'S DIARY.

Whether you like text, audio, or video, I have a taste of the book for you. Let's start with an audio clip of THE LIAR'S DIARY. This audio clip comes courtesy of Eileen Hutton at Brilliance Audio.

This video for THE LIAR'S DIARY was created by Sheila Clover English, C.E.O. of Circle of Seven Productions, who was moved by Patry's story and volunteered her lightning-speed creativity!

Here are the publisher's words:

Answering the question of what is more powerful—family or friendship? this debut novel unforgettably shows how far one woman would go to protect either.

They couldn’t be more different, but they form a friendship that will alter both their fates. When Ali Mather blows into town, breaking all the rules and breaking hearts (despite the fact that she is pushing forty), she also makes a mark on an unlikely family. Almost against her will, Jeanne Cross feels drawn to this strangely vibrant woman, a fascination that begins to infect Jeanne’s “perfect” husband as well as their teenaged son.

At the heart of the friendship between Ali and Jeanne are deep-seated emotional needs, vulnerabilities they have each been recording in their diaries. Ali also senses another kind of vulnerability; she believes someone has been entering her house when she is not at home—and not with the usual intentions. What this burglar wants is nothing less than a piece of Ali’s soul.

When a murderer strikes and Jeanne’s son is arrested, we learn that the key to the crime lies in the diaries of two very different women . . . but only one of them is telling the truth. A chilling tour of troubled minds, The Liar’s Diary signals the launch of an immensely talented new novelist who knows just how to keep her readers guessing.

And now, here are Patry's words, which I lifted off her blog: "Though my novel deals with murder, betrayal, and the even more lethal crimes of the heart, the real subjects of THE LIAR'S DIARY are music, love, friendship, self-sacrifice and courage. The darkness is only there for contrast; it's only there to make us realize how bright the light can be. I'm sure that most writers whose work does not flinch from the exploration of evil feel the same."

Ready to buy the book? Why not buy one for yourself and one for a friend? And if you like it, tell people!

Here are links to THE LIAR'S DIARY at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's. You can also buy directly from Penguin to save 15% (after you add the book to your cart, just enter the word PATRY in the coupon code field and click ‘update cart’ to activate the discount).

A long list of thank yous.

You're about to see a very long list of those who are taking part in THE LIAR'S DIARY Blog Day. I hope you'll check out the links because some of these folks got very creative. For example, my friend, Aurelio O'Brien, made up these buttons and stickers:

litpark aurelio o'brien eve cancer survivor button

Wow... to every one of you on this list! Thank you, so sincerely:

Patti Abbott
Mario Acevedo
Susan Adrian
Samina Ali
Christa Allan
Joelle Anthony
Jorge Argueta
Vicki Arkoff - MAD Magazine, Nickelodeon, MW Book Review
Melanie Avila
Tricia Ares
Terry Bain
Gail Baker - The Debutante Ball
Anjali Banerjee
Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Elizabeth Bartasius
Carolyn Burns Bass
Brett Battles
Laura Benedict
Pinckney Benedict
Janet Berliner
William Bernhardt
Alexander Besher
Marcie Beyatte
Brenda Birch
Roberto Bonazzi
Raven Bower
Laura Bowers
Beatrice Bowles
Tara Bradford
Gayle Brandeis
Stacy Brazalovich
Susan Breen - Gotham Writers Workshops
Heather Brewer
Eve Bridburg - Zachary Shuster Harmsworth
Sassy Brit
Heatheraynne Brooks
Debra Broughon
Josie Brown
Pat Brown
Ruth Brown
Ken Bruen
Rachel Kramer Bussel
Aldo Calcagno
Austin S. Camacho
Bill Cameron
Lorenzo Carcaterra
Vincent Carrella
Karen DeGroot Carter
Rosemary Carstens
Cynthia Clark - Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine
Jon Clinch
Kamela Cody
Oline H. Cogdill - Sun-Sentinal
Tish Cohen
Eileen Cruz Coleman
Myfanwy Collins
Dan Conaway - Writers House
Laurie Connors - Penguin
Eileen Cook
Richard Cooper
David Corbett
Auria Cortes
Bill Crider - Pop Culture Magazine
Kim Cristofoli
Ann Mare Cummins
Sheila Curran
Kristie Cutter
Jordan Dane
Josephine Damian
Daryl Darko
A.J. Davis
Kelli Davis
Alyssa Day
Alma Hromic Deckert
Jim DeFelice
Mike Dellosso
Katrina Denza
Bella DePaulo
Karen Dionne
Felicia Donovan
Julie Doughty - Dutton
Gerry Doyle
Terri DuLong
Firoozeh Dumas
Christine Eldrin
J.T. Ellison - Killer Year
Sheila Clover English - Circle of Seven Productions
Kate Epstein - the Epstein Literary Agency
Kathryn Esplin
Rachel Fershleiser at SMITH Magazine
Ryan Field
Michael A. FitzGerald
William Floyd
Natasha Fondren
Jamie Ford
Connie May Fowler
Heather Fowler
Therese Fowler
Jenifer Fox
Thaisa Frank
Michelle Gable
Gary Gach
Leighton Gage
Neil Gaiman
Colin Galbraith
Jayson Gallaway
Jane Ganahl - Red Room
Erika-Marie S. Geiss
Linda Gerber
Shane Gericke
Tess Gerritsen
Karin Gillespie
Anne Glamore
Kathi Kamen Goldmark
Jewelle Gomez
Susan Helene Gottfried
Deborah Grabien
Elizabeth Graham
Caroline Grant
Robin Grantham
Bob Gray - Shelf Awareness
Nancy O. Greene
Robert Grudin
Lisa Guidarini
David Habbin
Jim Hanas
Lynette Hart
Melanie Harvey
Michael Haskins
Melanie Lynn Hauser
Bill Hayes
Maria Dahvana Headley
Susan Henderson
Heidi the Hick
Georgia Hesse
Billie Hinton
Vicki Hinze
Lori Hope
Khaled Hosseini
Eileen Hutton - Brilliance Audio
Gina Hyams
International Thriller Writers
David Isaak
Susan Ito
Lisa Jackson
Arachne Jericho
Allison Johnson
Jen Jordan - Crimespree
Jungle Red Writers
Lesley Kagen
Polly Kahl
Jessica Keener
Charles Kelly
Lisa Kenney
Beth Kephart
Jackie Kessler
Merle Kessler
Kristy Kiernan - Southern Authors Blog
A.S. King
Jeff Kleinman - Folio Literary Management
Sandra Kring
R.D. Laban
Rebecca Laffar-Smith - Writers Roundabout
Clair Lamb
Daphne Larkin
Judy Merrill Larson
Caroline Leavitt
Virginia Lee
Leslie Levine
Mary Lewis
Richard Lewis
Sharon Linnea
Julie Anne Long
CJ Lyons
Jonathan Maberry
Amy MacKinnon - The Writers Group
Tim Maleeny
Ric Marion
Nancy Martin
Adrienne Mayor
L.C. McCabe
Damian McNicholl
Ellen Meister
Christa Miller
Kyle Minor
Jacquelyn Mitchard
P. A. Moed
Terri Molina
Pat Montandon
David Montgomery
Alexis Moore
Joe Moore - Inkspot
Amanda Morgan
Sarie Morrell
Amy Nathan
National Post
Tia Nevitt
Carolyn North
Aurelio O'Brien
Martha O'Connor
Andrea Okrentowich
Lori Oliva
Aimee Palooza
Michael Palmer
Stephen Parrish
Marie Peck
Marcia Peterson - WOW! Women on Writing
Jason Pinter
Anthony S. Policastro
Douglas Preston
Publishers Marketplace
Terese Ramin
Jody Reale
Martha Reed
Janet Reid - FinePrint Literary Management
Kamilla Reid
Lance Reynald
Michelle Richmond
Maria Robinson
John Robison
James Rollins
M.J. Rose - Buzz, Balls & Hype
Renee Rosen
Jordan Rosenfeld
Russell Rowland
Anneli Rufus
Hank Ryan
Marcus Sakey
Harris Salat -Visual Thesaurus
Rachel Sarah
Maria Schneider - Writer's Digest Magazine
Nina Schuyler
Dani Shapiro
Rochelle Shapiro
Charles Shaughnessy
Jessie Sholl
Robert Siegel
Clea Simon
Lynn Sinclair
Jen Singer
Shelley Singer
Sisters in Crime
Robin Slick
BPM Smith - Word & Bass
Bridget Smith
Claudia Smith
Kim Smith
Stephie Smith
Alexandra Sokoloff
Char Solomon
James Spring
Emilie Staat
Kim Stagliano
Maryanne Stahl
Bella Stander
Kelli Stanley
Marta Stephens
Bronwyn Storm
Jennifer Talty
Judith Tannenbaum
Mindy Tarquini
Alice Tasman - the Jean Naggar Literary Agency
Charles R. Temple
David Thayer
The Outfit
Joyce Tremel
Danielle Trussoni
Louise Ure
N. L. Valler
Barbara Vey - Publishers Weekly
Bev Vincent
Brenda Wallace
Therese Walsh - Writer Unboxed
John Warner - Tow Books
Gary Wassner
Brenda Webster
Sarah Weinman
Kimberly M. Wetherell
Dan Wickett - Emerging Writers Network
Jennifer Weiner
Laura Wellner
Susan Wiggs
Liz Wolfe
Cheryl Wyatt
Stephen Wylder
Irvin Yalom
Belle Yang
Dawn Yun
Michele Zackheim
Victoria Zackheim
Ernie Zelinski
Crystal Zevon

If I've accidentally left you off the list, or if you've just now decided to join us, drop a note in the comments section with a link to your blog. Every single voice counts!

This entry was written by Susan Henderson

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Listening to My Inner Voice

When I met Scott nearly four years ago I was going through some major life changes. I’d just gotten divorced and I’d been working in my current job for nearly four years. The job had initially given me a lot of satisfaction and went a long way toward allowing me to overcome my long time negativity of my self worth. I hadn’t gone to college and I’d spent a long time in an environment where our relative worth was identified by how many stripes we had and the fact that we had stripes and not bars, oak leaf clusters or eagles on our shoulders.

Then I had an opportunity to work as a sales person in the telecommunications industry and it was exactly the kind of job I needed. How good you are is measured in very simple terms. Are you selling, or not? Within a very short period of time, I was the top sales person in my company and I was making more money than I ever dreamed possible. People treated me differently than they ever had before, although I was exactly the same person I’d ever been.

At first I was like a kid in a candy store. I bought a bigger house, I bought expensive clothes, and I treated myself to obscenely priced, self-indulgent day spa treatments and began collecting expensive wine. But the thrill was short lived and I soon realized that the only thing the job and the additional money had done for me was remove those negative feelings of self-worth – which was a good thing, but it certainly wasn’t making me happy or satisfied.

I began thinking of the job as a means to an end. It became a near term way to save for the time when I didn’t need to make a certain level of income. I began thinking in terms of what would come next. I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I was contributing, making a difference or doing some good in the world. I thought maybe I could take my newfound sales and marketing experience and get into fund-raising for a non-profit. I researched it and found that although there are literally thousands of good causes, none of them sparked my passion.

More time went by and I continued to save and bank my commission checks, saving for the time when I could walk away or cut down my hours and do – what?

And I started to write again. I thought, maybe fiction writing is a way to make a difference, if not directly then indirectly. About a year or so later, I popped up here. Life was great and I was following my heart, but there was still a nagging desire to do something that might make a difference to real people.

In December, I posted about the Frontline special, “When Kids Get Life”. I had watched the special, which focused on five inmates in my home State of Colorado who had committed crimes as juveniles, were tried as adults and had received mandatory sentences of Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). I was stunned to learn that our country, which currently has over 2,200 juvenile LWOPs incarcerated and Israel, who has 8-12 are the only two countries in the world who sentence juveniles to die in prison. Over 60% of the juveniles currently serving LWOP in Colorado were convicted of felony murder, which means that someone died or was killed while another crime was being committed, but the convicted offender didn’t actually kill the person. Some of the juveniles committed horrible, brutal, heinous crimes. Some of the juveniles made bad decisions that resulted in a death. Some of them killed their parents after years of systematic abuse; some of them are developmentally disabled or mentally ill.

Regardless of the circumstances of the crime, the thought that children as young as fourteen or fifteen would be locked up with adult violent offenders, without therapy or any form of rehabilitation was incomprehensible to me.

In 2006, the State of Colorado changed the laws and decided that LWOP for juveniles was inappropriate. The mandatory sentence for murder and felony murder was reduced to forty years and then the possibility of parole. Forty years is still an enormously harsh sentence, particularly when you consider non-mandatory sentences served for murder, rape, child molestation and other violent crimes, which often allow offenders to be released in less than ten years. Unfortunately, the change was not made retroactive, so we still have 48 people serving LWOP under the earlier mandatory sentencing.

I contacted The Pendulum Foundation after seeing the show and eventually met with Pendulum’s Executive Director, Mary Ellen Johnson. Mary Ellen is a remarkable woman, who became involved with Pendulum fifteen years ago. She has appeared on television programs in several countries, testified before law makers, participated in panel discussions and wrote a book about one of the juveniles, Jacob Ind. The Murder of Jacob was published a number of years ago, but is still available on Amazon.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to help. I could not imagine a system that would dictate that our society would not even open up the possibility that juvenile offenders could be treated, rehabilitated and someday, after taking responsibility for their crimes, at least have the possibility of freedom. I told Mary Ellen to consider me a volunteer for anything she thought I could do – forwarding information out on upcoming events, researching issues – whatever would be useful. Mary Ellen recently contacted me after sharing the December blog post with Curt and Pat Jensen, the founders of Pendulum and asked if I’d be willing to volunteer as their publicist. I don’t know anything about being a publicist, but I’m willing to learn. Mary Ellen and the Jensens know that I work full time and have a limited amount of time to dedicate, but they need all the help in promoting awareness that they can get.

Last night I created a new blog, called Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing. I’ve learned through this blog that the blogosphere can be a powerful medium for establishing dialogue. I have no illusions that trying to raise awareness and garner support for shorter sentences for juvenile offenders will be popular and I fully expect, if I’m lucky enough to draw any traffic that I’ll experience hostility in the blogosphere for the very first time.

But for starters, I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve added a link to the new blog on my sidebar and since I know that many of you have experience working in PR and even working in the legal and juvenile justice systems, I’m asking for your help. Please comment or email me with any ideas or advice you have for me. If this issue resonates with you at all, please help me to spread the word. The Pendulum site has a call to action that lists things that you can do.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dickens in Dubai

It's infectious, I tell you -- and I'm so glad! One of my favorite writing bloggers has jumped into the Dickensian pool and I will be anxiously awaiting her first installment.

Liz Fenwick is her mid forties and is a perennial expat currently living in Dubai. It was living in Dubai the first time that she embraced again her first love, writing fiction. Since then she has written three women’s fiction novels and is about to begin the fourth. For the Dickens Challenge she will be stepping out of her comfort zone and writing Explosive Dreams, a thriller told in the first person, for the sheer hell of it to stretch those writing muscles – at least that’s the plan! You’ll find it (soon) on

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Dickens Challenge Finally Makes it to the UK

It's only fitting that the Dickens Challenge ought to have at least one English writer and as of today, we do.

Rachel Green is a forty-something writer from the hills of Derbyshire in England. She lives with her two female partners, their two kids and their two dogs, and only occasionally gets them all mixed up. She was the regional winner of the Undiscovered Authors 2007 competition and her book ‘An Ungodly Child’ will be published sometime this year. Her Dickens Challenge book is Another Bloody Love Story, a satirical tale of a romance that continues beyond the grave. You can read it at

I've just gone to check it out and it's great stuff! Please stop by and check it out. Rachel has been added to my sidebar for Dickens Challengers.

Anybody else?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Challengers Welcome

When Timothy Hallinan first proposed the Dickens Challenge, a number of you were tempted – come on, you know you were – but you held back. The timing was bad for some people and it was a scary proposition. We’re close to six chapters in, all of the writers have reported that it’s been a great experience, so for those of you who had initial reservations or prior commitments, now might be a good time to jump into the pool.

Several people have asked me questions about the rules of the Dickens Challenge and there really aren’t any. One of the most frequent questions is, “when does it end”? It ends when you’re finished or you decide you’ve had enough. Not everybody manages to post every week and we still love them and encourage them. There’s no winner and there’s no competition, just the kind of support and motivation that I’ve learned to love so much in our online writing community.

Bill Henderson, novelist, teacher and writing coach is thinking about joining us and posted about it today at his blog, TrueVoice.

In Bill’s post he talks about the Dickens Challenge as being a great way to follow up NaNoWriMo. I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, but every writer I know who has, said it was a great experience. They also said that post-NaNoWriMo, it was difficult to maintain that regular writing routine.

So if you’ve been following my progress on this interesting exercise and you’ve wondered whether it might give your writing a shot in the arm – give it a try. As Tim wisely told those of us who were especially neurotic about diving in, you’re not going to be banned from the internet if you start and decide not to go on.

Any takers?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Since this is one of the songs that plays a small part in the most recent excerpt of my Dickens Challenge piece, I thought I'd post it.

What is it about the Beatles that endures? They recorded music together for less than a decade and announced their break-up 37 years ago; yet, they're an indelible part of our cultural consciousness. When I was three or four years old, my mother bought "Meet the Beatles" and I can remember her playing it on our KLH portable turntable, turning the volume up loud and dancing with my little sister and me in our tiny living room. My parents had a lot of records, but until The Beatles, they were all classical and jazz. I'd almost go so far as to say that The Beatles mark the beginning of my awareness of the world around me.

Were the Beatles a big part of your life?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bean Sprouts

Just before Christmas I happened to find Bean Sprouts, a fantastic blog authored by Melanie Rimmer in the UK. I’ve signed up for her daily feeds and every one has been interesting, informative and frequently very funny. For those of you who’ve resolved to be greener in 2008, I promise you’ll find lots of resources and ideas at this site.

“Five of us live in a very small ex-council house with a very small garden on the edge of farmland. We grow some of our food on an allotment a couple of miles away. We keep chickens and bees. We try to be 'green', whatever that means”

I found Bean Sprouts through A Roker Artist. Steph is an artist on her own creative journey, and was one of the earliest visitors to this blog. She also happens to be Melanie’s sister. They live in different parts of England, but somehow I managed to find both of them. What a small and wonderful world.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

One Hundred Paintings, One Million Words

I often discuss problems, discoveries and emotions related to writing with Scott. I learn a lot from his experiences as a painter and from what he’s observed as a teacher.

It's not uncommon for beginning painters to become frustrated at their limitations. He always tells them the same thing: Talk to me when you’ve done a hundred paintings. I’ve noticed that novelists will often say they’ve written a million words by the time they’re published.

I was sharing with Scott that I’ve been surprised at what’s come out of my participation in the Dickens Challenge, and that contrary to what I used to think, a little pressure in the form of a weekly deadline seems to actually help, not hinder creativity.

Writing to a deadline has also helped me to get over my frustration at not being Joyce Carol Oates. If you saw my reading list from 2007 you’ll know that I’m a big fan of literary fiction. Reading great prose shouldn’t be a bad thing, except that it leaves a beginning writer, like me in the horrible position of knowing good writing when I see it, and consequently, feeling entirely inadequate because I can’t create it. The Dickens Challenge eliminates that stumbling block because it demands simply that I produce a chapter a week to the best of my ability. That doesn't leave me time to tweak and fiddle and polish, but it also doesn't allow me to fall into the trap of trying too hard either.

When I explained this problem to Scott, he nodded and said perfectionism breeds paralysis. Yes, yes, yes I agreed. How foolish it all seems when I consider the millions of words that the authors I admire probably wrote before I was able to read their work.

My reluctance to put pen to paper because I have such high expectations of myself would be like a beginning painter finishing two or three paintings and then being unwilling to start on a third unless it was certain to be as good as a Vermeer or a Renoir.

Scott gave me a further bit of insight. A well known painter once said that each time he begins to work, his goal is to create a mediocre painting. This allows him to paint good and sometimes great paintings, but the key is that it allows him to begin.

The time constraints of the Dickens Challenge have had, I think, a similar effect on me. In my mind, I’ve defined this as an experiment to complete a chapter each week and eventually finish the first draft of a novel. Not a great novel or even a good novel, just a completed novel. Timothy Hallinan has a great series of posts on finishing that really gave me the inspiration to focus on this simple, but critical goal. Since the time constraints for the Dickens Challenge force me to work by the seat of my pants and there is no time to edit and polish, I’ve freed myself of nearly all expectations. Lo and behold, this has made the writing far more pleasurable than it’s been with either of my previous attempts at writing novels. By publicly posting the work in progress, I have truly gotten over myself and I've given myself permission to write whatever wants to be written.

Although I know good writing when I see it and I prefer to read literary fiction, I’m well aware that I don’t write that way. I don’t know what my style is. To my surprise, Scott said that he wouldn’t expect me to have developed one yet. Painters learn through a process of conscious and unconscious imitation and after many paintings, an artist eventually discovers his own style.

I think writing tends to be a little less imitative than painting is, but I don’t think we can avoid being influenced in our writing by what we read. Since I read pretty widely, I have no idea what that might mean for me. I'll have to keep writing and find out.

I’ve struggled with the knowledge that nearly every published writer I know wrote one, two or three novels before finally publishing. I believe that knowledge has indirectly hindered my ability to finish either of my two unfinished novels (DC makes three). How could I put everything into something that is very likely never going anywhere?

And then it came to me. I have to finish one or two or ten so that I can learn how, so I can find my style and so I can prove to myself that I can do it. How did I not see that before? This doesn’t make me want to take it any less seriously. To the contrary, I understand that no matter what I end up with at the end, I’ll have learned a lot. Maybe it will be something worth taking further, but more likely it will be something to put aside so that the next one will be that much better.

Certainly, it will take me that much closer to a million words.

The Dickens Challenge writers are posting every Monday at their own blogs and on the Dickens Challenge site. The links are listed on my sidebar so if you have the time, please to try to check them out. We have an interesting mix of styles and stories and some incredible writers.

Thank you to all of you who continue to return to read my weekly excerpts. I sincerely appreciate the time that you take to read and comment.

Everything I've described is my experience. Everyone has a different path, so I am curious as to how my recent experiences and discoveries compare to yours.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Year Mapped Out in Books

As a way of further mulling over and therefore delaying the on paper documentation of my 2008 resolutions, goals, wishes and dreams, I decided to post the list of books I read in 2007.

Recently, Scott and I watched the movie High Fidelity, which was adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel. It was the umpteenth time we’d seen it but we both love it. Just as those of us who love music hear songs and immediately make autobiographical connections, so it is for me with the books I read and fall in love with.

The list itself provides a sort of map of my figurative and literal journey as a writer this year.

I found the Joyce Carol Oates at The Strand on my trip to New York City in May. I read Everyman, by Philip Roth on the plane trip to New York. The John Gardner books rocked my world and made me yearn to write even more, while reinforcing my insecurities and motivating me to read, read, and read until my eyes fall out. I read four of these books for my first writers’ retreat and discussed them with new friends I found there. Some of these are books written by fellow bloggers, and I loved every one of them – the books and the bloggers. Strange to read a book by someone you know, but don’t. Some were written by the faculty members of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. How much was each fictional main character like his or her creator? I could never get that question completely out of my mind. I read four of five of these books when we went to Cabo San Lucas in October and some I read with a dictionary by my side. Some books were recommended by friends, some were award winners and some just looked good.

Do book titles take you back to a significant moment at some point in your life? Can you remember details about where you were and what was happening in your life when a particular book resonated strongly within you?

And here’s a question I’m really curious about – can you separate characters in a book written by a fellow blogger -- since we only sort of know each other – from who you think the author really is? I’m confessing this tendency because I can’t seem to help it. If I actually knew the author in person, I’m sure the differences between the person and the character would be obvious. Or, if you’ve published fiction – does it bother you to know that people probably make assumptions about who you are based on your characters?

Happy reading in 2008!

  1. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
  2. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  3. A Nail Through the Heart, by Timothy Hallinan
  4. The Boy Who Went Away, by Eli Gottlieb
  5. The Murder of Jacob, by Mary Ellen Johnson
  6. Then We Came to The End, by Joshua Ferris
  7. Look Me in The Eye, by John Elder Robison
  8. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
  9. In the Electric Eden, by Nick Arvin
  10. The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
  11. White Noise, by Don DeLillo
  12. 78 Reasons why your book may never be published and 14 reasons why it just might, by Pat Walsh
  13. Away, by Amy Bloom
  14. No Place Safe, by Kim Reid
  15. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino
  16. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford
  17. From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler
  18. Articles of War, by Nick Arvin
  19. The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian
  20. Old School, by Tobias Wolff
  21. So Long a Letter, by Mariamba Ba
  22. The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon
  23. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
  24. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid
  25. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
  26. Poetics, by Aristotle
  27. Souvenir, by Therese Fowler
  28. Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow
  29. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
  30. Augusta Locke, by William Haywood Henderson
  31. Jesus' Son, Stories by Denis Johnson
  32. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  33. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
  34. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  35. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  36. All the Numbers by Judy Merrill Larsen
  37. The Liar's Diary by Patry Francis
  38. Elements of the Writing Craft by Robert Olmstead
  39. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  40. On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
  41. Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
  42. Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers
  43. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  44. Everyman by Philip Roth
  45. The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates
  46. Blindness by Jose Saramago
  47. Spoonwood by Ernest Hebert

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Dan Fogelberg : 1951 to 2007

It’s New Year’s Eve and I planned to write a short post to commemorate the New Year. The first thing that came to mind was Dan Fogelberg’s song, Same Old Lang Syne. I Googled Dan Fogelberg and was saddened to learn that he passed away on December 16th this year of prostate cancer.

Dan Fogelberg started making records in 1972, but it was in 1981, the year the album, The Innocent Age was released that his music became a part of my life. I got to RAF Bentwaters, my first permanent Air Force assignment, in September of 1981 when I was twenty years old.

Music was everything to us then. Stereo equipment was the one big thing that was cheap for us to buy on base and we all had elaborate multi-component systems. Those of us who were serious audiophiles bought albums and played them only once. We cleaned them, placed them carefully on our turntables and recorded them to high quality cassette tapes, or even better still, to reel-to-reel tapes and then we never played them again.

My friend Dee had a boyfriend named Yogi, who played acoustic guitar and sang. Yogi rented an ancient old English house with four or five other guys and played us Same Old Lang Syne for the first time. One of Yogi’s roommates, Eric also played guitar and they played that album over and over until they learned all of the songs and could play them too.

I spent my first Christmas in England at that house with a half dozen other young airmen, cooking a Christmas dinner that wasn’t ready until close to midnight, drinking and listening to records. It’s hard to imagine now that a song about meeting an old lover in a grocery store, years after the romance was over could have touched us so deeply at the time, but I suppose when you’re that young, all romantic songs seem to be about you. I guess that’s the mark of a great story teller, which is what he was. He makes you relate to experiences you might not even have had, but yearn to someday.

Although I was looking for a video of Same Old Lang Syne, Fogelberg’s song Leader of the Band is a more fitting tribute to him.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf