Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Birthday Scott Mattlin!

We turn not older with years, but newer every day. ~Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Few More Cool Exercises on Developing Characters

Before I continue with more of the very cool things I learned at Grand Lake, I have to make a confession about writing exercises. I love doing them when I have adult supervision, but I never do them when I’m alone.

My free time is limited so I always feel like what little of it I have should be spent adding words to my story. I used to think that time spent writing anything else was just a way to procrastinate about my WIP, but I’m not so sure about that now. If I could wind back the clock to the point where I really got stuck on The Foundling Wheel, I’d use the time I wasted on obsessive circular thinking to try some exercises that might have gotten me moving sooner. I'm learning.

Here are more of the exercises I did in the workshop with Shari Caudron:

1. Draft a scene wherein the character is getting dressed. Show us the room he’s in, the clothes he’s putting on and bring us into his inner-most thoughts. What is he thinking about as he gets ready for his day? Note: When telling a story, don’t introduce these details all at once. Allow readers to get to know your character gradually.

My free write was the inspiration for the new, real first chapter of my WIP. The original free write had lots of details that told me things about this character’s marriage and her husband. I hadn’t written anything about where my character lived before, but I suddenly saw it all. When I wrote about her getting dressed, I saw her pulling clothes from a stack of folded laundry in a basket. I knew she’d been washing and wearing the same few outfits for weeks and not bothering to put them away. I saw a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen before. This simple free write was the one that opened the floodgates for me. Funny how that works.

I didn’t recognize the significance of Shari's exercise note until I started writing this post. I knew that in the free write I was loading on detail because it was just an exercise. I would never include six or seven details about setting in my WIP, but by going overboard on detail in a free write, it helped me find one or two keepers I might not otherwise have thought of.

2. Choose an important secondary character – ideally, an ally – and answer the following: Who is he? Does he have unusual tics or mannerisms or figures of speech? How is he affiliated with the main character? Describe his relationship with the protagonist.

3. Choose another secondary character – one who is opposed to the protagonist. Who is she? What is unusual, or striking or memorable about this person? Actions? Profession? Personal history? How is she opposing the protagonist? What does she want?

4. Create a scene with your protagonist and his main adversary. Show your character wanting something, and his adversary opposing him. Weave in details about your character from the exercises above, or perhaps some odd things you noticed about people here.

5. Now take that same scene and weave in some realistic dialogue. See if you can work in some overheard dialogue from the last couple of days.

6. Now that you’ve spent time getting to know your character, introduce him or her to readers. Look at the character introductions on the next page [the attachment had sample excerpts from a short story, a novel, a personal essay and narrative non-fiction]. Using them as models, draft a page wherein your character first appears on the scene.

The exercises on secondary characters netted me a lot of great new material. There is a character I knew I needed to write and I knew he'd play an important part of the last third of the story, but I hadn't written anything about him yet. Prior to working on him at Grand Lake, I had too many ideas about who he was and I hadn't focused enough yet. He came to life for me up there.

I wanted to share what I got out of this workshop for two reasons. The first is that maybe one or more of these exercises will come in handy for one of you. The second is that blogging about the exercises really helps me to clarify how and why they work for me and in fact, that’s probably the biggest benefit to blogging about the writing process. I find that trying to capture my thoughts on an aspect of craft helps me to figure out what I really think.

I’m curious. Do any of you find that blogging about a subject helps you to understand what you really think about it?

We’ve all experienced periods of working on our WIP when we’ve been in the zone. I find that free writing puts me in another type of zone. Has anyone else felt that? Do any of you back away from your WIP and use writing exercises to help you to solve specific problems?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting to Know You

In my last post, I talked about an assignment to observe and describe interesting things about the other people I was with at Grand Lake. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who was reticent about describing my fellow work shop attendees. I can’t recall a single exercise before this one where at least two or three people weren’t willing to share something they’d written, but with the exception of an amusing snippet of dialogue or two, everyone clammed up when asked if he would like to share.

This experience made me realize how much more freedom we have in writing fiction than in writing narrative non-fiction or memoir, and I’m not talking about simply freedom from upsetting real live people. It’s about how much more creative we can be when we allow ourselves to break away completely from the first image we had of a character, particularly if that image was inspired by reality.

In the first exercise of our work shop on building better characters, we split up into pairs and we interviewed each other, the interviewee acting as her main character. Give this a try. It’s fun and you may find out some interesting things.

I interviewed my partner first. She’d done her five minute reading two nights before, so I had a good feel for her story. She (her character) was in a second marriage and had young step-children. I asked her about her relationship with her ex-husband, how her parents felt about her divorce and remarriage, what her religious background and beliefs were, whether or not she had close friends, what the biggest source of conflict in her current marriage was, what she did for a living, what her financial situation was like, where she was raised, etc. My partner was able to quickly answer some questions and others, not so quickly.

When she interviewed me, I had to organize my thoughts quickly to provide straightforward answers without going into a lot of back story. Imagining myself as my main character talking to a new acquaintance who knew nothing about me was a great way to cut to the chase. I took it as a good sign that she quickly got sidetracked and was asking more “what happened then” questions than questions about the character herself. There were a number of things I needed to do to develop my character more. As a bonus, I learned that from a plotting perspective, there were some specific things that needed work. I was able to jot down a detailed to-do list from this interview.

In the next exercise, we talked about visual details. Most of us find literal physical description boring, but other details, like tics and mannerisms are not. Some of the questions Shari asked us to think about were:

What is the first thing a casual observer would notice about your character?

What do your character’s choices reveal?

Whenever a character has to make a choice in life, that choice will reveal something about personality and values. Think about what choices your character has made for the following: cell phone ring tone, dog’s name, the car he drives (versus the car he really wants to drive), favorite breakfast, most listened-to iPod songs, etc.

I could think of hundreds of details that all speak to who my character is. Details related to where she lives, housekeeping habits, how she dresses, how she wears her hair, where she works, what or if she cooks, what restaurants she eats in, whether or not she goes out to movies, what movies she watches, what books or magazines she reads, what television shows (if any) she watches, where she shops, Beatles or Stones; all of these things focus in on who she is.

Here are some questions that cracked open my character and the entire story for me:

What characteristic does the character loathe in other people?

I hadn’t thought about the question for my character before, but once I did, I knew the answer and realized that informs a great deal of her actions. Now that I recognize this, I can use it to much better effect in determining her actions and reactions.

In what way do her actions go against her stated beliefs?

I knew the answer to this immediately. I also knew that this is something that all human beings struggle with from time to time and that it’s a beautiful source of conflict and tension to work with. I realized I should play this up more.

If you’re writing a story, what characteristic does your main character loathe in other people? Is this something you were aware of, or did you have to think about it? How about the next question? Do your character’s actions go against her stated beliefs, and if they do, are you using this to build up conflict?

I’ll post more on the work shop exercises during the week…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who, Indeed?

Every workshop I attended at the Grand Lake Retreat with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop earlier this month was excellent, but the one that really helped me break through some barriers with my own work was Shari Caudron’s Who Are These People? Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Shari Caudron, MA, MFA, is the author of two books: Who Are You People? (winner of the Colorado Book Award and chosen for Entertainment Weekly’s MUST List), and a collection of personal essays, What Really Happened, (named a humor finalist in the Book of the Year Awards).

A career freelancer, Shari has published more than 500 articles and essays in magazines and literary journals. She’s been a Lighthouse faculty member for five years and also teaches in the Master’s program at the University of Denver. For more on Shari, visit

After the retreat last year, I read her award winning book, Who Are You People: A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America.

From the back cover:

“You know those people who get passionately, fanatically, obsessively into things? People like doll collectors or Star Wars fans or that lady down
the street with gnomes all over her yard? Award-winning journalist Shari Caudron noticed them too and she was, well, jealous. Not having such a passion herself, she wondered: who are you people?”

The book is the culmination of a three year journey that took the author across the country to, among other places, a pigeon race in the Bronx, storm chasing in Kansas, ice fishing in the Rockies (Grand Lake, in fact), the World Boardgaming Championships, and a convention of Furries (I confess to voyeuristically flipping to this chapter first since I’d seen the Furries in episodes of The X-Files and CSI).

Reading about the author’s experiences with these groups is fascinating in and of itself, but she digs further to analyze how these passions relate to the way we live today, to identity, belonging, God, genetics, acceptance and communities. So it’s probably not a coincidence that I’m talking about Shari and her book in an online community of writers.

The book is fascinating, insightful and it’s funny. I give it five stars and I recommend it to anybody who’s a student of human behavior and of our culture – and who isn’t?

Shari’s workshop was on Thursday and to my surprise, she gave us an assignment two days before.

“To craft believable characters, writers need to become students of human behavior. The need to notice not only what people say, but how they say it. They need to spot the kind of pinpoint detail that can reveal character. They need to pay attention to quirks – the odd tics, the stubborn mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that make people unique.

To prepare for our workshop on Thursday, I’d like you to:

1. Spend the next couple of days listening, really listening to how people talk. But don’t just listen: jot down bits of dialogue and strange turns of phrase and cool, made-up words. (Hey, you’ll be carrying around a notebook, right?)

2. Notice – and write down – particular details about people: socks that don’t match; a goldfish tattoo; sunglasses worn indoors; chipped red toenail polish; a shirt buttoned improperly.

3. Unique bits of action; the person who won’t let different foods touch on a plate; the workshopper who’s always late and apologizes profusely; the morning jogger who runs backward for several minutes at a stretch.

The idea is not to embarrass anyone (we won’t be sharing names!), but for you to begin to notice the idiosyncratic behaviors that make characters seem true to life.”

My initial reaction to the pre-class assignment was resistance. There was no way I could write those kinds of things down, and I absolutely couldn't share my observations in public. When I describe a character, I often use what I see and hear to draw conclusions or even make value judgments about them and even when those judgments are positive or benign, I'm not sure a real person would like the way I'm describing him. The retreat was the ideal environment for doing this exercise. We were rooming with people who were strangers before the first overnight, we were sharing bathrooms, eating all of our meals together, workshopping together and hanging out together. People were on vacation doing something they loved with people who got them. I'd guess that each of the people I spent time with at Grand Lake was more genuinely herself in that environment than she is in real life. It was people-watching paradise.

Observing and recording the way people acted for the purpose of this exercise was very different from anything I’d previously done. It taught me that in relying on my inclination to create characters entirely from memory and imagination, I was missing out on a lot of very cool detail. My characters are each an amalgam of complete fiction and of aspects of many people I’ve known or met or at some point in my life, but because I’m pulling description from my imagination, I’m only using what it occurs to me to use. In some cases, it’s not bad, but overall, it could be much better.

I noticed that when I studied people I didn’t know very well, everything I could see, everything they said and the way in which they said it informed my impression of what kind of person they were. That seems obvious because most of us do that all the time, but I don’t think we’re necessarily conscious we’re doing it. Conversely, I think we tend not to notice as many details about people we feel we already know and for me, that includes some of my characters. It’s especially true of my main characters. Because I feel I know them so well, I now believe I am not describing them well enough to communicate what I take for granted to my readers.

In my next post, I’ll get into the workshop and the exercises that resuscitated my work in progress.

Are you the kind of person who creates dossiers on each character? Do you document everything about them from their astrological sign to their credit score before you begin the first chapter? Or do you start with a general idea and discover who your characters are as you write them?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Pictures From Grand Lake

This one was on Thursday night sometime during the participant reading. Friend Laurie Sleeper is in red and I'm in the blue and we're readers #1 and #2. Note the liquid courage in my hand.
Doni-Marie taking a photo of Mimi and Diane. This was our back yard.
And this was our yard. The dead trees are the result of a pine beetle infestation that we're battling here in Colorado.
Faculty panel discussion on the last day featuring authors Mike Henry, the Executive Director of Lighthouse and author of the upcoming book (poetry) No Stranger Than My Own, novelist William Haywood Henderson, author of Native, The Rest of the Earth and Augusta Locke and Shari Caudron, author of Who Are You People? (winner of the Colorado Book Award and chosen for Entertainment Weekly’s MUST List), and a collection of personal essays, What Really Happened, (named a humor finalist in the Book of the Year Awards). Shari has published more than 500 articles and essays in magazines and literary journals.
Chris Ransick, Denver’s Poet Laureate, won a Colorado Book Award for poetry in 2003 for his first book, Never Summer. His subsequent collection of short stories, A Return To Emptiness, won the 2005 Colorado Authors’ League Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2005 Colorado Book Award in Fiction. Lost Songs & Last Chances, published by Denver-based Ghost Road Press in 2006, is his most recent book. Teague Bohlen co-edits the literary and arts journal Copper Nickel and advises the campus newsmagazine The Advocate. Currently, he serves as a reader on the national flash-fiction journal Quick Fiction and is a regular feature contributor to Westword and L.A. Weekly. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, was released by Ghost Road Press in 2006, and won the Colorado Book Award for fiction.
After the reading on Thursday night...
After the reading...
A big ass moose

Big ass moose head on

Diane, Shari and Mimi

Mike Henry

Mike (I think)

Bill Henderson and Lynne


Martha and Andrea Dupree (Lighthouse Program Director)

Bill Henderson and Andrea Dupree


The Lighthouse Retreat

This was the eleventh annual retreat Lighthouse has held and the second I’ve attended. The retreat is held at Shadowcliff Lodge in Grand Lake, Colorado. Shadowcliff is a rustic, eco-friendly retreat center that’s perched high up on a cliff overlooking Grand Lake village and Shadow Mountain Lake. This year there were thirty three retreat participants and six Lighthouse instructors. The lodging is hostel-like and participants share rooms. Shadowcliff serves three communal meals each day and everyone signs up to help clean up after one meal during the week. The main lodge has a dining room and a large reading/hanging out area and it’s surrounded by a huge wrap-around porch. There are hiking trails and woods all around the lodge and there were lots of moose sightings. One of my fellow attendees captured this shot of two bulls.

We ranged in age from early twenties to eighty-one and I think most of us fell somewhere between 35 and 55.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon and got together for dinner. After dinner the faculty members each did a ten minute reading of something they’d published or were working on. The Monday through Thursday schedule was: breakfast, a morning workshop and then lunch. After lunch there was a discussion on one of four books. One day it was a short story collection, another was poetry, another was a memoir and the fourth was a novel. There was an afternoon workshop every day and then dinner. In the evenings there were activities as well. Monday night was game night, Tuesday was participant reading night, Wednesday was a night on the town and Thursday was another participant reading. On Friday morning we took our group photo, had a final session on publishing and we all headed home.

I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy this so much and what I get out of the experience. These are the main things:

1. Taking a week off from work and family to go to a writing retreat allows me to completely focus on writing. It makes a statement that says writing is a priority. Scott is very supportive and because he’s a painter, he understands. If it hadn’t been for his encouragement, I wouldn’t have gone last year. I’m fortunate that I don’t need to justify or explain why I want or need to go. For many of the other attendees (and for writers who might like to do something like this), taking this time away reinforces to friends, spouses, children and parents that this is who we are and what we do. Claiming that part of ourselves that is a writer is one of the most difficult challenges many people face. Almost every writer I know feels a certain amount of guilt and selfishness about the time he or she takes to write. Unfortunately, not everybody has a good support system and may even have people who work to sabotage that writing time. If a writing retreat sounds like heaven to you, you owe it to yourself to go on one.

2. For five days, I was immersed in discussions about books and writing with a lot of people and they were all writers. There were published novelists, essayists, screenwriters, poets, non-fiction writers and unpublished writers of all kinds and of all different backgrounds. What an opportunity! Normally, I don’t get to be with other people who understand what I’m trying to do. All week long I got to be with “my people” and many of them have become friends.

3. Five continuous days of discussion and workshops opened up a flow of creativity and inspiration that is difficult to maintain outside of that environment. Almost every session was suffused with freewriting exercises. I know most people reading this are probably familiar with freewriting, but in case you aren’t, freewriting exercises are frequently used in writing classes as a warm up. Typically the instructor provides a prompt and the group is then instructed to write continuously, usually for about ten minutes or so. The idea is to keep the pen moving on the page and not to self-edit. I have been stunned at some of the results I’ve gotten from these exercises. Although it’s something that anyone can do at any time, there seems to be a heightened output that comes from freewriting in a group environment. Perhaps it’s the collective energy that’s present or the added motivation of having other people in close proximity. I don’t know what it is, but I have pages upon pages of freewriting and many of the exercises resulted in work that I can incorporate into my current WIP.

4. Reading in front of the whole group was an important milestone for me last year because I’d never done it before. This year, I was surprised to find that I was almost, but not quite as nervous about it. I don’t know why reading one’s work in front of a group seems to be so powerful. It may have something to do with claiming our identity as writers. It may have something to do with humility and recognizing that we are learning, but that we’ll never be in a more supportive environment. I don’t know what it is, but that small five minute opportunity to share work with other writers is powerful.

I’ll post about some of the specific workshops later, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the overall experience and why I feel it was so beneficial.

For as long as I’m able, I’ll be going back to Grand Lake.How about you? Has anyone experienced anything similar? Thoughts on reading in front of people? Freewriting? Claiming your identity as a writer?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Poets Are The Freaking Best -- Updated!

Tuesday night Scott and I went to a poetry reading. He was a little unsure about it, but he was willing to go.

I showed him this and this told him the reading would probably be similar in tone, just to freak him out. Disclaimer: I think these clips are hysterical, but don’t watch them if profanity or angry rants at nuns bother you.

The reading was great. Frankly, I envy the poets their chosen form when it comes to a reading. There is something about seeing and hearing a poem read out loud that brings it to life in a way that is much more powerful than reading an excerpt from longer forms.

Scott loved it.

If you’ve never attended a poetry reading or seen someone read, check out these two videos. Billy Collins is a former US Poet Laureate and his poetry is particularly accessible. This poem written and read by Maya Angelou and read by the poet is a magnificent example of how powerful a poem can be when it is performed.

Poets rock. I don’t write poems and I don’t understand half the poems I read or hear, but I love them anyway. Of all the artists in all the mediums, I think poets are artists in the purest sense of the word. A passion for and love of the form are the only reasons to write poetry.

Think about it. There’s not a poet on the planet who is deluded enough to think he’ll ever get rich, or even make a living writing poetry. But they do it anyway. They do it because they’re meant to do it. I think about how exciting it must be for a poet to actually see her work in print, because the odds are that it will never happen. For a poet to have a book published is nearly unheard of and even when it does happen, how many copies could it possibly sell? 50? 100? Denver’s Poet Laureate was one of the instructors at the retreat and he made the comment that getting published is extremely difficult, but being read is even harder.

Even the most successful poets live in relative obscurity and have to teach or chase grants and prizes in order to survive. Does anyone know who the United States Poet Laureate is? I didn’t know either. It’s Charles Simic. Here’s a list of all the past Poets Laureate. I recognize less than half of the names.

Now contrast my vision of the poet with the kinds of things we regularly read from fiction writers, both published and not published. For the most part, there is a chasm a million miles wide between the mindset of poets and of fiction writers. No poet ever fantasized about the New York Times Best Seller List, book tours, book trailers or movie options. No poet would ever complain about being a mid-list author.

Perhaps I’m a romantic. There’s nothing wrong with hoping to make a living from writing, but how delightful it has been to spend time with people who do what they do simply for the love of it. The notion that financial reward, critical praise, fame or even the likelihood of being read by more than a few people doesn’t much enter into the thoughts most poets have about writing seems somehow liberating to me.

We all have reasons for writing and the truth is that we ourselves are the only ones who truly know what they are. For most of us, being published so that people will read what we write is part of the vision. Recent observations lead me to believe that poets seem to be much more at peace with their art than aspiring and published novelists do and I attribute that to the differences in expectation.

The other night we watched a DVD with some stand-up performances of Richard Lewis from the mid to late 1980’s. In an interview afterward, he talked about how he was broke and living in crappy apartments for years and years, but that it never bothered him because he was so happy to be living as an artist. He said his pet peeve is hearing other people whining and complaining about show business because they’re lucky to have the chance to work in it at all. That comment really struck a chord with me.

I hope there are more poetry readings and I hope we’re invited back. I’m not inspired to write poems, but I do appreciate hearing them.

Are there any poets out there? I know Charles and Billy write poetry. Am I deluded, or do poets look at what they do differently than fiction writers do? Has anyone participated in a poetry reading on either side of the stage? Have you hugged a poet lately?

Important updates: Poets and dirty talk (thank you Electric Orchid Hunter!)

And if this topic has sparked your passion, link over to see Riss for some more thoughts on creativity (thank you Riss!)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Friends Animal Society Request on Behalf of Homeless Animals

Best Friends Animal Society is an organization I've supported for a number of years and I am a big fan of what they do. I got a request from them that I wanted to pass on because I'm a big believer in pet adoption. If you agree and you have just a minute, please support this petition:

"Senator Obama and his family have said that, win or lose, they’re going to add a dog to their family after the election this November.

That’s a great idea. But I hope they decide to adopt one from their local shelter. Why? Because as long as people still buy their pets from pet stores and commercial breeders, millions of abandoned pets are killed in shelters across the country every year.

So here’s one issue that’s truly bi-partisan – one that we can all agree on. Let’s ask our national leaders always to adopt their pets from shelters, rather than buying them from pet stores.

Members of Best Friends Animal Society have started a petition to invite the Obama family to do just that. Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, left-wing, right-wing or any other wing, you can make a bipartisan difference by signing our petition at, and encouraging all your friends and family to sign it, too.

Thanks for thinking about the nation’s homeless pets!"

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Back From Grand Lake

I’m back, I’m recharged and I’m inspired. I solved some problems I'd been having with The Foundling Wheel. It was another incredible experience and I have lots to share about the retreat that I’ll post about later. I will definitely be back up at Grand Lake again July 12-17, 2009. This year, we had people from as far away as Atlanta and Tucson in attendance, so maybe next year I'll tempt one or two of you into coming out to Colorado to join us.

On a side note, I turned forty-seven while I was away. If I couldn't be at home with Scott, I was in the next best possible place to celebrate a birthday. Scott surprised me and sent the most beautiful flower arrangement I've ever seen.

My Uncle Denis sent this photo of me, sitting on what I believe was my grandmother's kitchen floor.

I'll be catching up with all of you and your blogs this week. I missed you guys!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Off to Grand Lake With Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Those of you who've been reading for a while know that I can't say enough about Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a non-profit creative writing school that we are incredibly lucky to have in Denver.

In February Lighthouse was honored with the Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. I just discovered this short film about the school. The video features Lighthouse Program Director Andrea Dupree, Denver's Poet Laureate Chris Ransick, screenwriter Alexandre O. Philippe, and board member Marcelina Rivera (incorrectly ID'd as faculty). On a side note, debut novelist and Pajama Gardener Carleen Brice is a board member for Lighthouse. Lighthouse was started by Andrea Dupree and Mike Henry in 1997 and now has a membership of over 1,000 writers. The story of how Lighthouse came to be is here.

Tomorrow, I'll be headed up to the 11th annual Grand Lake Retreat for five days of writing and reading in beautiful natural surroundings. You can see details about it here or read about some of my experiences at the retreat last year here and here.

It will be interesting to see how my experience this year differs from last year. When I signed up for the retreat last year, I'd never attended a writing course before. I was headed into to completely unknown territory and I was terrified. For all I knew, I was walking into The Algonquin Round Table, prey to a modern day version of "The Vicious Circle". I was sure everyone there would be accomplished, brilliant and expose me for the talentless hack I was. Naturally, it was nothing like that. It was the single best step to becoming a better writer I could have taken.

After attending the retreat last year, followed by several courses at Lighthouse throughout the year, I anticipate the week with the same sense of excitement I'd have if I were headed to a summer cottage in the woods with friends and family.

I'll have lots to share when I return, but I'll be checked out from July 6th through the 11th.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Pico de Arte and Some Thoughts on My Kindle

Thanks to Billy at Chapter and Verse for the Pico de Arte Award. I am honored and humbled. Thank you very much Billy.

The criteria for the award is as follows:

To inspire others with their creative energy and talents. This can be through writing, artwork, design, interesting material or contribution to the bigger community. It is a special honour to receive it.

I am passing this along to the following bloggers. These are all places I visit regularly and I always find thoughtful, creative posts that teach me something.

Steve Malley
The Electric Orchid Hunter
Timothy Hallinan

On another completely different note, I've been thinking lately about my Kindle. Yes, I bought a Kindle a few months ago after my Uncle Denis got one and I developed Kindle envy. I'd always looked at the Kindle as a supplement, not a replacement for actual physical books and to be truthful, I didn't do much with it for quite a while. My original thought was that it would be great to have when I'm traveling and I really wish this was something I could have had during the years when I was traveling over 50% of the time. I'm always pretty weighed down with reading material any time I'm going somewhere for more than an overnight trip. Lately, I've started using it more and the ability to have more books than I could ever possibly read available to me on one small device is great, but there are so many other cool things I can do with it that I'm not sure too many people know about. Here are some of my favorites:

1. The font is adjustable. I have finally come to the point where my near vision is starting to go. I can still read without reading glasses, but I finally broke down and got a pair and I find myself reaching for them more often than not when I settle in at night to read. I don't need them when I'm reading the Kindle.

2. There's a built in New Oxford American Dictionary. When I come across a word I'm not sure about, all I need to do is highlight the word is and the definition pops up.

3. There's a search function. If I'm reading and run across a reference I'm not familiar with (a name, a literary reference, a foreign phrase, a place, a book title, etc.), I can type it into search and I have the option to search the Kindle, the dictionary, Wikipedia or the web. When I run into something I'd like to research when I'm reading an actual book, I rarely remember to check it out later, so it is extremely useful to be able to do it while I'm reading.

4. The wireless service used to download books from Amazon and to perform searches comes with the unit as part of the admittedly high purchase price -- there's no further service fee. The account also comes with a Kindle email address, so I can send documents and pictures to the Kindle. The literary agent, Kristen Nelson loves this feature because it allows her to send client manuscripts to the Kindle, rather than schlep tons of paper around.

5. I can highlight text and/or add my own notes about it and it's saved. The "clips" I save are available on the Kindle home page and the highlighted text and the page it appears on are included in the clip file.

6. One of my favorite things about the Kindle is that if I'm interested in buying a book, I can download a sample of the first few pages of the book for free. This lets me check out the author's style and get the feel of the book. If it doesn't hook me, I haven't lost anything. If I want to buy it, the Kindle is connected to my one-click account and I have it within a minute.

7. Here's one that I am shocked that Amazon hasn't been playing up as a marketing tool. Buying ebooks is not only less expensive than buying brand new paper books, but it is an almost entirely green alternative. An enormous amount of resources are used to print, store, pack and ship paper books. There's the paper itself, not to mention the fuel required to truck and deliver books around the country and around the world.

There are quite a few more things that you can do with it that I either haven't tried yet or don't know about, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the usefulness of this ebook reader.

I'm curious about your thoughts on the Kindle or other ebook readers. Since the Kindle's release, I've been surprised at some of the hysterical, bordering on irrational posts and comments I've read about it. I accept that most of us love the feel of a real book and we're reluctant to make a shift. I love "real" books too and I foolishly continue to buy them and really ought to stop since I do have the Kindle. Writers in particular seem to have a huge fear that ebooks will be a bad thing. The first fear expressed is that people will pirate free copies of the book. Frankly, I think that's not a big concern. Secure purchasing has been worked out for music and software already and it's inevitable that there will be some pirating, but I doubt seriously that it will have any greater impact than shoplifting does. In fact, people lend physical books out all the time and it isn't really possible for me to lend the books I download to my Kindle to anyone, so in some ways, it could stimulate more book sales. The other part of the ebook model that I think should be encouraging is that since the cost of selling an ebook is next to nothing compared to the production and distribution of physical books, and since the price point for ebooks, although lower than for physical books is still relatively high, the profit margin to the publisher on ebooks is logically far greater. This could potentially do two things. Publishers could choose to purchase more titles, since the risk associated with producing and shipping physical copies is drastically reduced, and/or they could choose to allocate more money toward promotion and marketing.

Now there are a couple of obvious downsides to the Kindle specifically. The first is that it's obviously a proprietary device designed to only work with Amazon. The second is that there are quite a few ergonomic improvements they could make. The thing really looks more like an early computerized toy than a modern piece of technology. And the third is that it's pretty pricey, which is normal for any new technology device. The first DVD players, .mp3 players, digital cameras, etc. were all two or three or twenty times more expensive than they later became.

There were plenty of people who claimed they'd never download music and yet the majority of people in the country have an iPod or some form of .mp3 player. We resisted most technological advances and yet, the useful ones have all been adopted.

So what say you readers and writers? Are you one of those who will never consider using an ebook reader? Do you use one now? Do you see them as a threat or as a good thing for writers?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Books I Read in June 2008

This list may look familiar because the books I finished in June are the same five I listed in my ten year meme post, plus one.

The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy was a great recommendation from Tim Hallinan. This 1999 collection of twenty three essays was written by authors who are graduates of and/or teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The authors are: T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ethan Canin, Justin Cronin, Charles D’Ambrosio, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Tom Grimes, Doris Grumbach, Barry Hannah, James Hynes, William Lashner, Fred G. Leebron, Margot Livesey, Elizabeth McCracken, James Alan McPherson, Chris Offutt, Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Power, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Scott Spencer, Abraham Verghese and Geoffrey Wolff, with an introduction by Frank Conroy.

Conroy was intentionally vague with his instructions to the authors. He told them to write about writing. Some wrote essays that might have been classroom lectures on craft, some on creativity and process, some are deeply personal, some philosophical and some are about the publishing business. I got something from nearly all of them.

Ethan Canin’s essay, Smallness and Invention was one of my favorites. He talks about his experience arriving at Iowa with very little writing experience. His initial approach to writing short stories was to try to emulate John Cheever.

“I would seek out those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream.”

He claims his first stories were “dismal”, although somehow I doubt that’s possible. He went back to Cheever for inspiration and began typing out paragraphs of his work. This, he claims was as important an exercise as he’d ever performed because he noticed that what he considered to be Cheever’s brilliant insights were always preceded by and usually followed by a great deal of small detail. He initially attempted to layer more detail into his own work, only to discover:

“…that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.

This changed my writing forever. To put it another way: I had chanced upon the discovery that for the writer is not a moral pondering or grand emotion that are the entrance to a story, but detail and small event.”

Rose’s Garden, by Carrie Brown, was a gift from the lovely and talented Jennifer Duncan. This wonderful book swap came about when I did a first lines post and Jennifer said she’d keep reading The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert. I love the book and told her I wanted to send it to her. Jennifer then told me she wanted to share one of her favorite authors and she sent me Carrie Brown’s first novel, which is also set in New Hampshire.

Carrie Brown is the author of four novels and a collection of short stories. She has won many awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. There’s a great interview with her from May of 2002 here.

Publishers Weekly said this about Rose’s Garden:

“When Conrad Morrissey's wife, Rose, dies after 50 years of marriage, it takes an angelic visit to save him from his grief. That is the familiar premise of Brown's sweet, gentle first novel, set in the small town of Laurel, N.H. Once the ghost of his dead father-in-law prompts Conrad to concern himself with the living instead of the dead, he discovers that Rose's mysterious friend Hero, a slightly retarded girl with whom she shared a love of gardening, has also been receiving instruction from the dead. "And what had it been to Hero? He could not guess, except to believe that her world had always been filled with voices, the spokesmen of recrimination and doubt." As rain threatens to obliterate Laurel's ancient dam, and the town itself, Conrad finds new meaning in the memory of his wife and in devotion to the White Mountains community where they both spent the best years of their lives. A town full of sympathetic characters, including the widowed neighbor who can only sleep when every light in the house is on, and the beleaguered editor of the local paper, round out this sensitive debut.”

This is a beautifully written book and Carrie Brown’s prose is lyrical and lovely. The story builds up slowly in the beginning and less patient readers may have trouble with the pacing. I enjoyed the slow read and I delighted in getting to know the characters so well.

This excerpt takes place in the local newspaper office, after Conrad, the main character, has seen an angel in his dead wife’s garden and wants a story on the sighting published. Nolan Peak, the newspaper editor has refused his request and sent him on his way.

“Betty Barteleme, the walleyed gatekeeper at Peak’s newspaper, lowered her glasses when Conrad came back into the front office. He lingered there, trying to find the words to say what he felt. Nonsense? He thought. What does he know?

Miss Barteleme sniffed, waved her letter opener at Conrad. ‘Go on home now, Conrad Morrissey,’ she said through her nose as Conrad stood there, gazing at her, thinking. ‘You’ve bothered Mr. Peak enough already for one day. Go on home before I take a broom to you and your feathers.’ But then, as if remembering Conrad’s recent loss, she softened. ‘There’s no point in waiting. He’s not going to see you again this morning. He’s a very busy man. Very, very busy.’ She leaned over and patted his arm. ‘Go on.’ And she waved the letter opener toward the door.

Conrad looked down, brushed at this trousers, saw a feather drift across the floor toward Miss Barteleme’s dimpled ankle, turning over on itself like a tumbleweed. Miss Barteleme, of the fat, powder white Pan-Cake cheeks and penciled eyebrows and two-tone pantsuit – sizing her up, Conrad imagined that she now fancied she herself had a way with words, as if the talent for it were contagious. She guarded Nolan Peak like a little flat-faced dog, irksome and loyal. Now here was Conrad, squared off in a wordless confrontation with this officious woman who acted as though any business of the paper’s readers was entirely irrelevant – even a hindrance – to the higher purpose of her beloved Peak’s mysterious mission.

Well, you two deserve each other, Conrad thought.”

Thank you, Jennifer for introducing me to a gifted author. I plan to read more of Carrie Brown’s work.

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey was released in June and Margot Livesey’s essay in The Eleventh Draft motivated me to read her.

From Publishers Weekly:

“The absorbing latest from Livesey (Homework) opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.”

The characters are complex and deeply flawed, and there are no happy endings for anyone in this story.This New York Times Sunday Book Review by Liesl Schillinger is excellent.It’s an intricate and deeply layered character exploration.

Abigail is an independent woman, focused on self-preservation who appears to need no one but herself. She’s got an innate ability to attract men and keep them around for as long as it suits her and to just as easily discard and forget about them. She’d be entirely unlikable and shallow if you didn’t know anything about the circumstances of her upbringing.

Dara is the opposite. Relationships and sex are meaningful and serious, but men don't flock to her. She’s compassionate and sensitive and the sudden, unexplained disappearance of her father from the family’s life when she was ten explains everything one needs to know about her.

While reading this book, I found myself continually bringing aspects of the story up to Scott. It’s the kind of book you can’t wait to discuss with someone. If there were a book club full of people who like the same books I do, this would be a perfect selection.

This was a page-turner and I fear that Margot Livesey has done far more with this story than I was able to pick up and appreciate with one rapid read-through. I suspect I will be re-reading this one, and seeking out more of this author’s work.

Simon Says, by Kathryn Eastburn. I read this because it’s the tragic true account of a triple murder that was planned and carried out by four Colorado Springs teenagers at a time when I was living in the Springs. My interest in juveniles serving long or life sentences (see Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing for more on that subject) led me to this one.It's one of the more bizarre murder cases I’ve ever read about.

From Publishers Weekly:

“On New Year's Eve 2000, Isaac Grimes, a Colorado Springs high school sophomore, went on a sleepover at the rural Colorado home of the grandparents of his former best friend Tony Dutcher. There, Isaac confessed three months later, he slit Tony's throat while his accomplice and fellow student Jon Matheny shot to death Carl Dutcher, a military veteran and licensed arms dealer, and his wife, JoAnna. Grimes and Matheny blamed high school senior Simon Sue for planning the triple homicide; Sue had bullied them into believing they were guerrillas following orders in a Marxist Guyanese paramilitary organization. At 15, Grimes became the youngest inmate in the adult prison system after he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years; Matheny and Sue were sentenced to 66 and 53 years, respectively. Eastburn, who covered the case for the Colorado Springs Independent, offers a well-researched, fast-paced account of events. The crime is ultimately more interesting than the criminals, who shed meager insight into their own motives and psyches.”

I was once a true-crime junky, as was my Dad, and our conversations and encyclopedic knowledge about serial killers tended to freak out the rest of the family.

My fascination was always about what made people who were capable of committing such horrible acts different from the rest of us. Naturally, I never found any answers. Serial killers don’t seem to have any obvious similarities to each other. My interest in this grisly subject eventually tapered off, but since my interest in juveniles who commit murder has surfaced, so has my interest in learning what I can about them and their crimes.

Within the genre of true crime, this book is exceptionally well written and very balanced. For people looking for answers about why these juveniles did what they did, you won’t find them in this book. You won’t find them anywhere.

What none of these books talk much about, is the aftermath of violent and tragic events like these. The despair continues for all those left wondering why. In this case, the mother of the fifteen year old murder victim, who was a stripper for most of the victim’s life left her job at a Colorado Springs nude club one morning the year following the murders. She’d been drinking and taking drugs and drove the wrong way up the interstate, colliding head on with another car and killing the driver. She’s currently serving a ten year sentence for vehicular homicide. The remaining members of the victims’ family have not fared much better.

The parents of the convicted killers are devastated and their lives have been destroyed. One of the killers’ mothers (who I've met through another association) told me that almost immediately after her son was arrested, most members of her family turned their backs on her. Her marriage ended and she lost her home and her friends. I cannot fathom what it would be like to be the mother of a murder victim or the mother of a murderer.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was one I reluctantly read after so many people had recommended it. I say reluctantly because I admit I am a total ass and since so many people loved it I figured it couldn’t possibly be anything I’d like. I was wrong. I consumed this fairly long book over a weekend and was captivated the entire time.I’m not going to go into much detail about this book because based on the number of comments I had on a previous post, I have to believe I’m the last person on the internet to read it. Thank you to Karen at Beyond Understanding for letting me borrow her copy.

The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin was a recommendation from Amy at The Writers’ Group and I’m glad I listened to her. Lee Martin is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; a novel, Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Prize. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he directs the creative writing program at The Ohio State University.

The story begins sometime in the 1970’s when a nine-year old girl in a small town in Indiana disappears. Martin alternates between the first person points of view of four different characters – and he’s got a couple of 3rd person omniscient chapters included -- sounds incredibly difficult, if not impossible to me, but he makes it look easy, as all true artists do. What was interesting about reading this book was that there are two especially unlikable characters; one because he’s just creepy and the other because he’s both creepy and despicable, but I found myself pitying them both. As the story unfolds and each character tells his or her part of it, the tension mounts exponentially. The story drew me in immediately and I devoured it in a couple of days. How could I not, with an invitation like this:

“I’ve never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I’ll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then – a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I’m an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you’ll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.”

* * *

Since only four of the six books I read this month were novels, I find it a little disturbing that two of them featured characters with unnaturally icky feelings about little girls. Actually, three out of six if you count The Time Traveler's Wife. It doesn't actually go there, but it sort of forces you to worry that it might.

Note also the prominence of the color green on most of the book covers. Hmm. I must consult the cards for hidden significant meaning.

Reading in June started out with a bang, but I must confess that I haven’t gotten much reading done in the last week. I have been slogging through the second season of Twin Peaks on DVD and I realized as I began watching it that I didn’t see any of the second season when the series ran in 1990-1991. All of my nostalgia was about the first season. Well – I’m sorry to say that despite the characters and the potential for continuing a good concept show, they should have quit after the first season. Nevertheless, I bought the entire series and as I live and breathe, I will finish watching every episode, no matter how stupid it gets. I'm stubborn that way.

Scott and I did watch one especially good movie on pay per view. For a bit of American history that is both inspirational and sobering, watch The Great Debaters. If this one isn’t nominated for at least one Oscar, I’ll eat my remote.

Last night we watched Untraceable, which is described on the movie’s home page as “Silence of the Lambs for the internet age”. This thriller isn’t destined to win any awards, but the premise is one of the most original and unsettling I’ve seen in a long time.

So, summer reading? Are you reading more books now that it’s summer? Less? Light reading? Tackling the heavy stuff?

What have you been reading and/or watching?

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

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