Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Book Meme and Some Thoughts on What I've Been Reading Lately

Liz Fenwick tagged me for this meme on books and it presented me with some revelations about my recent habits. I swear, the meme is here somewhere, so just skip to the end of this blathering if you want to get to it faster.

I consider reading to be just as important to my writing as the actual writing and so the books I read tend to be selected for specific reasons. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book to read, just because I thought it would be fun or entertaining. This surprised me. The good side of this coin is that because I’ve been reading books to gain insight into how they were written, it makes me realize that I have begun to look at writing (and the associated reading) in the same way I view learning a profession.

That can’t be all bad.

The other side of the coin is that reading has always been a happy diversion for me and I’ve been depriving myself of that pure escapism. Those books I picked up to read for the pure pleasure and entertainment of it all keep slipping to the bottom of the pile.

I can track this back to the weeklong retreat I attended with Lighthouse Writers Workshop in July. I knew some of the instructors were published authors and I wanted to read their books before I went. It would be just plain rude not to, right? There were also four books that would be discussed (the discussions were optional, but I’m an overachiever, so that was a no-brainer – of course I was going to read them all). I managed to slip in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a challenge to myself and then I read Tobias Wolff’s Old School because he was coming to Denver and I was planning to attend three events where he’d be presenting or teaching or reading.

In October, I’ll be attending a class called Experimental Structures in the Novel. We’ll meet every other Thursday for eight weeks and we’ll discuss four novels that take unique approaches to story structure, so I’ve got quite a bit of my future reading mapped out. We’ll read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (ha, finally ahead of the curve), If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. How could I pass up the opportunity to try out books like this with some actual adult supervision?

Now since my Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructor for the course is also a published novelist and short story writer, and he's had a story published in The New Yorker (yes) I’ve just started his book, Articles of War, which was listed by Esquire Magazine as one of the best books of the year. Nick Arvin’s book has also been named 2007’s One Book, One Denver selection! – More on that next week.

Prior to any of this, I signed up for the Writers Revealed Virtual Book Club and Away, by Amy Bloom is sitting quietly, waiting for me to pick it up so that I can participate in the discussion with the author on October 28th.

In the meantime, I have books by other bloggers sitting in piles unread -- including at least one blogger who I've tagged today! The exception of course is that I dropped everything to read the UK edition of Therese Fowler’s Souvenir that Larramie was so wonderful to send me in July – how could I not?! Everything else I have in that pile (and I promise you there are about a dozen) I really do want to read and I have not had time to open. I’m also a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and the latest release has been collecting dust for weeks.

I'm not even going to mention all of the books on writing and craft I've bought and read over the last year or so -- see my list of books I've read this year on the sidebar to get an idea about those. Yikes.

Is this a bad thing?

Is all of my “serious” reading making me a dull person? Seriously, I am NOT a great big poser trying to read all these smarty-mcsmart-smart books just to look smart. I do have a big sense of having missed out on taking literature classes in college because – oh yeah, I didn’t exactly go to college, so I feel like I’m making up for lost time.

Am I depriving myself of some good old-fashioned fun, or am I doing what I need to?

OK – on to the meme:

Total number of books?

I’m not sure if this means the total number I have now or the total number I’ve had in my life – hmm. I feel like I’m constantly purging the collection because books take over the houses where I live all the time. Looks like the average number of books on each bookshelf is 30 X 20 shelves = 600, oh my God, plus the piles of unshelved books on top of tables, on top of shelved books, stuck in cabinets, in boxes in the garage – Is there a 12-step program or rehab facility for this kind of obsession!? Do I need an intervention?

Last Book read?

I’m happy to report that earlier tonight I finished The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian. I hope to post a review at The Book Book within the next few days.

Last Book Bought?

That could be the last one delivered or the last one ordered – yes, I buy way too many one-click selections from Amazon! I bought three at once (listed above) for the class on experimental fiction. Yesterday, Amazon delivered Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison. It had been on pre-order with Amazon for quite a while.

Five meaningful Books?

So hard to say and I know I am forgetting so many books that touched me, but here goes. Books that really made me want to write and that were meaningful to me at different times in my life include: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, The Other by Thomas Tryon, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, and The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice.

Five People to Tag – Hmmmm – How About:

Karen at Beyond Understanding

Larramie at Seize a Daisy

Kristen at From Here to There and Back

Patti at the Patti-O

Carleen at The Pajama Gardener

Now I figure I'm one of the few people I've run across on these blogs who's attempting a "Back to School" type of experience -- just like Rodney Dangerfield, only please God, I hope I don't really look like Rodney Dangerfield!

How often do you pick up a book in order to study it, rather than purely for the enjoyment of reading it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cinematic Writing

There was a workshop on cinematic writing that I almost passed on when I went to the retreat in July. Then I read the session description. This wasn’t a class meant for screenwriters, it was for fiction writers. As strange as it initially seemed to me, the study of film can teach us a lot about good writing. With minor exceptions, movies are all show and no tell.

Films don’t and can’t use abstract descriptions, generalizations, summaries, analyses or interpretation to let us know how characters feel at any given moment. Narrators don’t tell us that a character is sad, angry, filled with passion, ecstatic, or depressed. Filmmakers have to show those things to us.

Can you picture characters in movies that have these feelings? Can you see, in your mind’s eye a woman who has been told in a staff meeting that she’s been chosen for a promotion? Can you feel the quickening of her pulse, the whooshing in her ears that is her own blood rushing, can you see her self-conscious physical tics, maybe she’s pushing her hair behind her ear or clicking a ballpoint pen, can you feel and see her attempts to control her excitement and her happiness? Can you describe the physical sensations she’s having and exhibiting, without using abstract words?

There is no voice over in a movie to tell us that a character is recently divorced or has been left by his lover and therefore drinks alone every night, orders in from the same Chinese take-out, pops pills to sleep and hasn’t opened his mail in a month, but films can show us all of that within a minute or two.

Do you see the inside of this man’s apartment? The overflowing trash can filled with unread newspapers, empty liquor bottles and Chinese take-out boxes? Did you watch him come in with his mail in his hand and dump it on top of a pile of unopened envelopes on the chipped Formica counter? Did you notice that he’s on a first name basis with the man who delivers his food? Did you see him swallow something from a prescription bottle before he gets into bed and surfs through all night infomercials?

Nobody has to tell us anything and we know a lot about this character.

We can learn a lot from movies.

The medium of film allows us partial participation in the characters world through what we can see and hear. We can see the sensual response on the outside of a character’s body through his or her posture, gestures and expressions. We can hear noises and we can learn things through a character’s tone of voice. Our words allow us to explore the story world on a deeper level. We can express emotions by the way they actually feel in very concrete terms. Grief feels like a pressure or palpable weight that literally makes it difficult to breathe. Fear releases adrenaline that tenses our muscles, makes us ready to run, and heightens our awareness of sight and sound. There are physical manifestations that accompany all human emotions.

In fiction, we can also describe smells and we can describe tactile sensations

I tend to think I’m showing and not telling a lot more than I really am. When I read over my work, I am usually surprised to see how many abstract adjectives I’m using and how much more I could show my reader through sensory description.

Do you consciously avoid using abstract descriptions, or are you still working on it, like I am? When you describe a character that is experiencing a specific emotion, do you sit down and mentally try to summon up all of the physical sensations that come with that emotion? How do you show emotion in your work?

For extra credit and my undying admiration (I can't think of an actual prize), can you name the movies these pictures come from?

Monday, September 24, 2007

On the Way to Workshop Tonight

I was listening to the radio on the way to class tonight and this song came on. I'm sure I was a comical sight to see driving through Denver, "dancing" behind the steering wheel and blasting the stereo. There's something about this song that always puts me in a great mood. Go on. Get up and dance to it, you know you want to -- nobody's watching and so what if they are!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Yearning

There was a great post on September 12th at One Hand Typing where Mardougrrl talked about some of the ideas Robert Olen Butler lays out in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. I was so intrigued that I bought the book and so far, I am captivated by his thought processes. There are things in this book that I’d not previously read in other books on writing and I feel like light bulbs are going off every time I read a new chapter.

Note on this book: Based on many of the Amazon reviews, a lot of readers are put off by Butlers very direct and opinionated style. Unlike many books on writing where the authors recommend that writers do what works for them, Butler comes across pretty strongly about the way to write. If you can get past the tone, it’s a great book.

My first epiphany was about what Butler refers to as yearning. Since I literally keep Kurt Vonnegut’s “Creative Writing 101” list of eight rules in front of me at all times (OK, I have them memorized), I certainly am aware of KV’s rule #3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”. This fundamental rule is in all books on craft. Until I read Butler, I was thinking about the things that characters want in much more concrete terms.

There is something about the way that Butler describes yearning that broke through to me. He rightly credits genre fiction with being very good at establishing a character’s desires. Typically, what the character wants is pretty clear in a romance or mystery, for example. Butler says that almost without exception, aspiring non-genre fiction writers tend to fail because they don’t establish their character’s yearning, or desires the vast majority of the time.

We can write great characterization, describe emotion, attitudes, opinions, and ideas but many times we overlook that major component – desire-- that is at the core of narrative and plot; that drives them.

It’s usually more subtle in contemporary fiction than it is in genre fiction, but it’s just as critical. Our characters yearn for love, for a sense of belonging, for success, respect, a home, community, friendship, acceptance, revenge, forgiveness, a mother, a father, a child, God, the past, escape from the past – literally dozens of possibilities.

What the characters yearn for is typically never stated. The reader and I suspect more often than not, the writer discovers early on what the character yearns for through our narrative descriptions and through the character’s thoughts and actions. I suspect it’s not something most writers are conscious of from the beginning.

For me, this was a Wyle E. Coyote moment – a cartoon anvil with the word “yearning” dropped out of the sky and landed on me. It gave me a true – holy @#$% moment. It all became clear to me why some contemporary novels seem to fall flat and it’s a huge reason why I often (OK always) struggle in my own writing. Knowing what my characters yearn for answers so many questions and solves so many problems for me, I just had to sit down and think about it. In the case of what I’m working on now, it was obvious – once I asked myself the question.

How much do you consciously think about what each of your characters yearns for? How much do you think it impacts everything else in your story?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Book Book

As if we all didn't have plenty of great blogs and sites to check out every day -- Even so, I've added this one to my Cool Sites sidebar.

The Book Book is a site with book reviews posted daily by people who read the kind of books I love to read. There are a number of reviewers and anybody can be one. Some books are reviewed more than once, so you can get viewpoints from more than one reader. I love this site because these people read all kinds of books, old and new. From the site:

"This is a site by and for geeks who like to keep a log of what they read. We finally figured out that a communal log is even more fun, since you get to compare notes with other geeks. If you're interested in a particular book, scroll through the labels for your title or author.

Wanna be a BookBook reader? Email Moonrat at and she'll set you up as an administrator."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mitchell and Webb - Write this..or that..or maybe

Kristi in my Monday night workshop just sent this and it just cracked me up. I believe I've had this conversation with myself!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Workshop Notes

The weekend was busy, but it was great. I attended a really worthwhile 2 ½ hour Agent workshop on Friday afternoon. Several weeks before the workshop, I received eight ten page excerpts and synopses from the workshop participants. I signed up to audit, so I did not submit pages, but I was asked to critique the work of the eight who did.

The agent ran a great workshop. I’m not anywhere close to finished with a manuscript, but this was all very good to know for future reference.

Straight away, she asked what a writer needs to accomplish within the first ten pages in order to interest an agent and readers. There’s nothing new here, but it bears repeating:

Hook is huge

Make the readers care about your character(s)

Spell out a goal and introduce conflict

Ground the reader to a specific time and place

Voice needs to kick in immediately

Providing a good deal of information and/or withholding information can be effective ways of piquing interest. She pointed out examples of two excerpts where the writers managed to convey a lot of information and another where the writer managed to pose quite a few questions. All three worked well.

Her advice on query letters was short and sweet. The letter should reflect great writing and the writer’s personality should come through. If the book is humorous, it’s OK to let the letter reflect some humor too. Be careful not to go overboard with the humor. She gave two examples where the writers tried to be a little too funny and crossed the line into obnoxious (my word, not hers). Be careful not to come across as arrogant (apparently this happens frequently). She emphasized that nobody wants to enter into a business relationship with someone who sounds like they’ll be a pain in the neck, even if their writing is wonderful.

Her advice on pitch sessions – for those who attend conferences and have the opportunity: Tell your story in half the time allotted. If it’s a ten minute pitch session, tell your story in five to give the agent time to ask questions.

Finally -- and here was advice I had not heard before -- she said writers should practice reading aloud. She said to focus on reading with your head up and to speak slowly and distinctly. She said most people tend to look down the entire time and to read too quickly -- Guilty!

The feedback she gave the participants was upbeat and encouraging. Of the eight submissions, she picked three as examples of good writing (I don’t think this extended to offering representation, but it had to be very encouraging to the writers). She asked each participant to read a page or two of his or her chapter and then she led a verbal critique.

The biggest personal observation I took away from this session and my other recent critiquing experiences is that many novice novel writers tend to want to withhold a lot of information up front. In many of the pages I’ve read lately, the writer could probably provide more information up front to build and sustain interest.

After having my first chapter critiqued last week, I got some great feedback indicating that some of the things I let the readers know over time, they would like to have known sooner and some of the things I didn’t tell at all they might also like to know. That's one of the best things about critiquing the work of other people -- it's almost always easier to notice areas for improvement when we read them in someone else's work!

It’s an interesting balancing act – deciding how much to tell readers and how soon.

Any thoughts on deciding how much to reveal in the first chapter?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Week of the Critique

I’ve nearly overwhelmed myself, but I’m plowing through. This is the official “Week of the Critique” for me.

Monday night in my novel writing workshop, I was critiqued by the group and it was my first time. It was a very productive and helpful session. The group talked about my first chapter for about 20-25 minutes and then I got ten very detailed written critiques. I was really impressed with how thorough and how thoughtful all of the critiques were. The best part of getting so much feedback is that I can easily read through each of the ten write ups and find consensus about things that did and didn't work for these readers.

It was a very positive experience and I feel fortunate to have such a great group of people in my workshop. One of the other writers compared the experience to a focus group, and it really was. It was interesting to sit quietly while people debated aspects of character, or discussed interpretations of relationships and dialogue. Charles Gramlich at Razored Zen posted the other day about an article he’s planning to write about the differences between online and actual writing groups. I learned Monday that it’s a huge benefit to listen to several people discussing the work, because many of the things discussed didn’t necessarily come across in the written critiques. This tends to apply to situations where people have made assumptions and find that other readers didn't interpret what they read in the same way.

I’d also gotten a detailed written critique the day before from another friend, so I have a total of eleven critiques of my first thirteen pages!

But now it’s payback time. I need to critique a piece for our next session on Monday, but before that, I have to finish critiquing eight excerpts for a conference hosted by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers this weekend. I’m auditing an agent workshop on Friday afternoon, so the eight actual participants will get critiqued by each other, the agent and five auditors.

I found it interesting that without a specific format for the critiques, everyone does his or her own thing. All of the pages had writing on them, some people chose to write summaries on the backs of pages and some typed up comments in their own format, broken down into categories.

For the sake of standardization, I decided to use the form that one of my critiquers used for my feedback and it seems to be working well. The eight excerpts I’m reading are a really mixed bag. There is one humorous piece, set in post WWII New York City, a historical peace that spans a lifetime, starting in the Ante-Bellum south, there is a modern YA tale with a premise based on technology and computer hacking, a cozy mystery, a coming of age, a historical romance, a thriller, and an action-adventure. Each also has a one page synopsis and it’s interesting to note the differences. One synopsis left me flat, but the excerpt is written extremely well. One synopsis is really good, but the excerpt wasn’t nearly as promising as the synopsis and the rest all fall all over the map. I can't imagine how agents deal with reading and assessing all the queries they get.

The weekend starts on Friday with the start of the Colorado Gold Conference, hosted by the RMFW. I registered for it months ago, so I didn't know it would coincide with The Lighthouse Writers Workshop Tobias Wolff events, which include two workshops and a fund raising dinner! I double booked myself and will have to make choices between sessions and events all weekend and dash between venues all over Denver.

Monday night I’ll be back in workshop, detailed critique in hand.

Whew! I’m looking forward to the weekend, but I’ll be relieved when all of my critiquing duties are behind me for another week.

For those of you who have had experiences on both sides of the critique, what are your thoughts about giving and receiving feedback?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Since I can’t remember the last movie rental I watched that left any kind of impression on me, I felt compelled to post about a gem I saw tonight. Perfume is the film adaptation of the 1985 literary historical German novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind.

I picked up the book when it was first released and the story has stayed with me all of these years. The story was so unique, well written, horrifying, beautiful, shocking and thought provoking that I’ve never forgotten it.

The main character is born in the slums of Paris in 1736 with the gift of a sublime sense of smell. He’s orphaned and moves from infancy through boyhood and adolescence from one appalling situation to the next and causes all of those who come in contact with him a sense of discomfort. The reason for this is because he doesn't actually have a scent, which other people aren't consciously aware of, but the effect is that to the rest of the world, he nearly doesn't exist. He's eventually apprenticed to a perfumer and begins a quest to create the ultimate scent and he embarks on a series of murders. The story explores scent and the emotional meaning scents carry and although the setting is historical, the themes are entirely contemporary.

Stanley Kubrick declared the story unfilmable, but German filmmaker Tom Tykwer has created an incredibly visceral cinematic masterpiece. You’ll want to put this opinion into the context of my personal movie taste, which you can get a feel for if you look at my detailed profile. If you like the type of films that I do, you’ll really like this movie.

Has anyone else read this book or seen this film? What good movies have you seen lately?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Away, by Amy Bloom on Writers Revealed Virtual Book Club

So far so good! A few weeks ago I talked about Writers Revealed and a number of great WR related programs and events, so I wanted to do a short follow up.

Writers Revealed is a live weekly podcast hosted by Felicia Sullivan that promotes new books and authors. I’ve listened to several of the podcasts, which are aired live on Sundays or can be downloaded from the Writers Revealed website. All of the discussions have been interesting and entertaining.

This upcoming Sunday, WR will be speaking with Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England, which I am dying to read.

Writers Revealed also launched a Virtual Book Club. Each month the WR VBC hosts a live chat with the author of a newly released book. By registering for a selection – and they are offered individually, so you only sign up to read and discuss the books you want to – the Writers Revealed Virtual Book Club sends you a free copy of the book.

Today, I received my copy of Amy Bloom’s Away in the mail. The NYTBR wrote up a great review on this book, so I am very excited about reading it. The VBC chat is scheduled for October 28th so I have plenty of time to finish what I’m reading now and jump right in. I'll get instructions on how to call in to the discussion as we get closer to the date.

The VBC site still shows spots open for the Amy Bloom book discussion – I’m not sure if it’s current or not, but if you’d be interested in participating in this or any of the future discussions, check it out!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Bad Sex

We’ve all been there. Yes, it’s an awkward subject to talk about, but we’re adults here. Human sexuality is a part of us and we’ve all experienced terrible disappointments at one time or another. I’m talking about novels we’ve been completely absorbed in up until we hit a bad sex scene – and there are a lot of ways to go wrong here.

As a reader I am much more critical about sex scenes in a dramatic story than I am about sex written into humorous stories.

A sex scene that has been added in order to move a story forward and has been written well will allow me to remain in the “fictive dream”. Sex that’s been added gratuitously or that isn’t written well will pull me out of that experience and I become hyper-critical. I suspect most of us tend to be that way. There are several common ways to lose me and most readers.

Pitfalls to watch for include the value judgments and values of the intended audience, making sure the scene is serving a purpose, describing the encounter in the proper context – is it simply sex between two people, is it two people in love, is it both? Is it a first encounter? Is it adulterous sex? Is it sex between married people? Is it gay sex? Is the sex being forced? Is one or the other of the characters bored? Distressed? Is the description too graphic? Too metaphorical or corny? Too perfectly orgasmic?

Based on the number of articles I found when I did a search on “writing sex scenes”, most writers consider this is one of the most difficult aspects of writing.

If you had attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in July, you could have attended this:

Writing About Sex
Weekend Workshop
July 21–22

Writing a good sex scene is no more difficult than writing a good battle scene, a good hospital scene, a good bar scene, a good office party scene. Novels, short stories, memoirs, poems, plays, movies—you’ll find sexual activity in every genre. The writer of sex scenes is faced with making a private act into a public performance. This requires attention to language and perceptions that are both intimate and universal. Sex can be sad, funny, quick, joyful, desperate, illegal, impromptu. So much depends on the character, the situation, the setting. We will explore writing about sex (with a nod to Elizabeth Benedict’s wonderful The Joy of Writing Sex) by reading examples from Michael Chabon, Scott Spencer, Audrey Niffenegger and Sue Miller. We’ll write our own sex scenes—subtle and bold, sad and comic, metaphoric and meandering, striving to make an honest scene on the page. This workshop is for those writers of fiction and nonfiction who feel their work could be energized by a well-crafted sexual moment.

Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex was published in 2004 and all comments and reviews I’ve read indicate it may be a great “how to” reference on this tricky subject. I'll let you know after Amazon delivers my copy.

This link to an article in The Boston Phoenix, by Steve Almond is a humorous set of rules about writing sex. Rosina Lippi’s blog has a series of posts on writing sex here. Marge Piercy also has an article on writing sex scenes here. Just About Write has a good article by Lori L. Lake here. Writer Lee Goldberg also blogs about it here and science fiction writer Deanna Hoak writes about it here.

When at all possible, many writers will simply “close the door” to avoid writing a sex scene entirely, but sometimes the story really needs it.

How do you feel about writing sex scenes? Are you good at it, or would you rather avoid it? Can you recall scenes you’ve read that have been done well? Done badly? What do you think are the keys to writing sex scenes well?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

According to, the phrase “improvise, adapt and overcome” is an unofficial mantra of the Marine Corps based on the fact that the Corps generally received Army hand-me-downs and the troops were poorly equipped. Despite this, the Marine Corps has been successful mostly because of the creativity of its people and their success-based attitude.

Improvise, adapt and overcome seems to also be the mantra of all creative people. Scott has been a full time painter for about 25 years. At the age of 29, he decided that painting was his calling and this meant he would drive old cars, live in modest housing and work at flexible, low paying jobs in order to dedicate his energy to learning to paint and making a living at it.

Living meagerly for many years has given Scott the uncanny ability to “make-do” in a lot of situations. There is very little that gets thrown away around here without Scott’s scrutiny to determine whether or not it can be repurposed.

When we brought Amedeo Modigliani or “Modi” home from the Golden Retriever Rescue of the Rockies not long ago, we knew that the 6 ½ year old dog was going to need plenty of exercise. Scott started out walking him every day, but it just didn’t seem to be enough.

One day, he came home with an odd assortment of materials from Home Depot. He had foam pipe wrapping, PVC pipe, rope and D-rings. He told me he was going to make a contraption that would allow Modi to run along while Scott rode his bike. I stifled my skepticism and let him go at it. A little while later he was ready to try his experiment. Inside I was cringing, afraid the whole thing would end in disaster.

It worked. The dog gets a good run every day and Scott and Modi have become a legend in our neighborhood.

What does this have to do with writing? I’m not sure, but I couldn’t resist posting these pictures!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Puff, the Magic Dragon

The doorbell rang and the UPS man was already jumping in his truck to leave, by the time I picked the package up off my front porch. My Uncle Denis emailed the other day and asked for my address. I don’t remember ever getting anything through the mail from him before so I was intrigued.

Inside the box was a signed copy of the recently published book, Puff, the Magic Dragon.

I’m not sure how old you have to be to have Puff the Magic Dragon embedded in your soul, but Peter, Paul and Mary released the song in 1963, when I was two years old. It’s always been a part of my consciousness and even though it’s not a song I’ve heard very often over the years, it always brings me to tears.

Denis told me that when I was very little, they had to play that record for me over and over again.

There are a few fragments of memories I have where I remember being very small and singing that song. Most of the people who are a part of those memories are gone. My grandparents, my parents, my Uncle Phil and my grandmother’s Labrador retrievers have all passed away, most a very long time ago, so I suppose that adds to my feelings of nostalgia when I hear the song, but it’s much more than that.

Who could not feel pain in his heart and get a little misty at the lyrics:

“One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more,

And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.”

Peter Yarrow, the author of the original poem that inspired the song says this:

"Puff has appeared to me both childlike and wise, a king but also a willing follower of just about any bright spirit that inspired him. Puff gives his whole heart and soul to one special friend, Jackie Paper. And though it is terribly painful when Jackie grows up and has to leave, Puff has given Jackie the strength and courage he needs to believe in himself when he goes back to the real world. "

Maybe we mourn for ourselves and our own loss of innocence when we hear this song. I suppose we do. I tried to think of another song that has the same emotional impact that Puff the Magic Dragon has, but I can’t come up with one.

Does hearing this song do this to everyone? If not Puff the Magic Dragon, is it another song, movie, poem or book that has become part of your emotional makeup?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Crossroads

Alexandre Philippe, One of the Lighthouse instructors at the week-long retreat I attended this summer conducted a session on narrative structure and at one point he said, in order to properly structure your story, you have to know the end. Ultimately, everything you write is leading up to that point – the entire payoff in a book is in the last chapter and in a movie, in the last ten or fifteen minutes. He allowed that it’s OK not to know the end in the beginning, but by the one hundred page mark, you’d better have it figured out.

I recently watched a movie called, The Hawk is Dying, starring Paul Giamatti. It was a film adaptation of a novel written by Southern gothic novelist, Harry Crews. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t nearly as interesting as the special features, which included a fairly lengthy segment with Crews talking about writing. I’d never heard of him, but he’s relatively well known and has written close to thirty novels. He was coming up with so many gems, I had to grab a notebook, stop the DVD and start it over so I could write some of them down. The following quotes are not verbatim, but they convey the gist of some of the things he said:

“I threw away half a novel this week because I’d made a wrong turn. The amateur, the coward, the non-writer will keep it and try to make it work, but the real artist puts it in the fire and does it again.”

“All art is metaphor. Fiction is about abstract nouns like love, pity, mercy and compassion. I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but my teacher once said that all fiction is about one of two things. It’s about love or the absence of love.”

“The writer’s job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, not to be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it; to get to the blood and the bone.”

“Good writers don’t try to answer questions. I don’t have the answers to questions raised in my books – if I did, I’d be writing tracts, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“To the extent that I have any peace at all, it’s when I’m writing.”

“Having written a book is fun. Writing a book is agonizing.”

“I believe that writing a novel is the closest thing to childbirth that a man can experience.”

“Any piece of fiction that makes a point is bad because nobody knows what the f#*k the point is.”

He also quoted something he credited to Robert Penn Warren that really resonated with me. He said, “A good writer doesn’t have to know his story when he begins. All he has to do is trust his knowledge of craft and technique to discover the story. It’s all discovery.”

In my first attempt at writing a novel, I had the whole story outlined and pretty concrete ideas about how it would flow. Once I got a fair distance into it, I realized I’d made a number of wrong turns and I put it away.

I’ve been working on a new story since sometime in June or July. I have a pretty good idea what will happen, but as I move through the story, ideas and possibilities continue to materialize. It’s really pretty cool and it isn’t bothering me to improvise as much as I have been – if you know me at all, it should come as a huge surprise that I’m not freaking out at the idea that I don’t have total control over this. I know it’s because I’ve learned so much more about craft than I knew when I started that I’m not worried I’ll do something irreversibly wrong.

I’m about sixty double spaced pages in and now I’m wondering how much longer I’ll go on before I know for sure how it will end – which of the many options I’ve thought about that I’ll go with. In the meantime, I’ve been alternating between editing and tweaking the first couple of chapters and adding bursts of new material to move the story forward. My imaginary editor is starting to tap me on the shoulder and point at his watch, as if to tell me I have a little time left, but I need to lock this into place pretty soon.

Discussions about outliners and seat of the pants writers have come up many times before, but each time I find a post on it, I learn something new. Do you always know the end of your story when you start? Do you ever? Does it vary? If you don’t know the end when you begin, do you find it to be a process of discovery, as Robert Penn Warren noted? Is it fun and exciting to make these discoveries about your story and your characters, or does it fill you with anxiety until you nail it down?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Blogosphere and Literal Reality

I suspect I know how it must have felt to be a Dungeons and Dragons player back in the day. I wasn’t one (I think girls were few and far between with the D&D guys), but they were a tight knit crew of unusual people who generally kept their secret passion to themselves when around the rest of us, but they were a force to be reckoned with when they were together – sort of like Mulder’s friends on The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen.

When I started blogging initially, I didn’t tell too many people. To the average non-blogging person, the stereotype of a blogger was some pitiful person journaling her personal thoughts about cats versus dogs, what she had for breakfast and God knows what other self-indulgent prattle out into cyberspace.

Originally, I thought I wanted to connect with people who were interested in making a life change. By day, I’m working for a high tech company as a technical sales person, but I had decided I wanted to change my life and pursue something with much more meaning to me – my writing. As it turns out, the writing and the process of writing is what the blogging is mainly about. I’ve had an opportunity to share in the experiences of writers from the aspiring novelist, like me to many people much farther along on their journeys.

The term “blog”, short for Weblog is even distasteful. It sounds like a biological function you’d perform standing in a shiny satin dress, friend holding your hair, and high heels aerating the lawn behind a country club after too many rounds from the open bar at the company “Holiday Party”.

Weblog also seems a misleading term. Merely logging events and thoughts doesn’t indicate anything much different than posting thoughts on a web page, but I think the majority of bloggers – at least those I’ve come in contact with – blog because they’re looking for a dialogue.

Little did I know how rewarding blogging with writers, artists and all manner of creative minds would turn out to be. I won’t go into my Six Degrees of Separation experiences to outline how following a comment from one blog to another and to another has led me to some of the most thoughtful and interesting people I know, but I will say that the blogosphere allowed me to meet real live people in my own home city of Denver and hopefully as time goes by, I’ll have a chance to meet some of my online friends in other cities and countries.

Friday afternoon I met Karen Degroot Carter, another Denver area writer. Karen is the author of One Sister’s Song and also a member of The Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a creative writing school here in town. We had a terrific time and Karen posted about it here.

Sometime very soon, Karen and I hope to have lunch with Carleen Brice, another Denver writer, member of The Lighthouse Writers Workshop, blogger at The Pajama Gardener, editor of Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife and author of Lead Me Home: An African American’s Guide Through the Grief Journey, and Walk Tall: Affirmations for People of Color. Her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey will be released by the One World imprint of Ballantine in February.

Years ago, people predicted that the proliferation of the internet would lead to our increased social isolation, but I feel like I’m part of a phenomenon where the blogosphere is enhancing our lives and bringing us closer to people we might otherwise never meet.

I still don’t talk about my blogging activities to many people and when it does come up, I tend to change the subject. I think it’s a little like being a Dungeons and Dragons player – I don’t think most people understand.

What surprises has blogging brought your way?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Box of Rain

It's been a weird couple of days. It's been the kind of weekend where introspection trumped all and it was hard to write, hard to concentrate, to work in the yard or to do much of anything. This song kept popping into my head.

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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