Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Golden Notebook Blast from the Past

In my online critique group, one of the members posted a quote from The Golden Notebook:

Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.

  • Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.

  • There is only one real sin and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but second best.

  • What's really terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is the first-rate. To pretend that you don't need love when you do, or you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better.

Wow. I need to read that book again. It knocked me over when I read it in the 1980s. I wonder how I'd see it now. That was a great part to quote.

I have a story to tell you about The Golden Notebook. As I said, I read it in the 1980s. Well, some years after I read it, in 1988, I was in college, doing a school year in Italy. I went on a trip to London on one of my school breaks and had many adventures. One of my adventures there was that I met a mysterious French man named Gerard. Gerard was an impeccably dressed Parisian with curly black hair and sharp blue eyes. When we met, he explained to me and my traveling friend, Margaret, that he was a psychiatrist and had been conducting research into the subject of cannibalism.

Apparently, a grisly murder had occurred in Paris, where a husband had killed his wife and then cooked her and ate her. Ew. Well, Gerard was traveling the globe researching any similar wife or spouse eating cases and was gathering all of the information he could on the topic. Quite taken with himself, he went on at length about how cannibalism appears in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretal) and even embodies a sacred Christian ritual of holy communion. At some point, Margaret stood up, announced she was going to bed and abruptly left me alone with the guy. In spite of his morbid mind set, he was awfully cute, and I couldn't resist accepting his offer to spend the following day together in London.

Ever have one of those weird things where a word you would never normally see on a given day seems to crop up all over the place? Well, in bookstore windows, on bus advertisements, sprawling across the walls of the tube station, we found the word, Cannibalism. At each instance, Gerard would solemnly nod his head and tell me in his French accented English, "See? Et Ees everywhere."

After dinner, we decided to attend a theatre performance and found that A Winter's Tale was playing nearby. Shakespeare in London, oh, yeah. So, we rushed to the theater only to arrive a minute after the curtain rose. The theatre attendant informed us that we would have to wait until the end of the first act before we could enter and take our seats. As we stood in the empty lobby with her, I noticed that the theatre attendant had a dogeared copy of The Golden Notebook on her chair. "Oh!" I said, "You're reading The Golden Notebook. I loved that book. How are you liking it?" We chatted, as Gerard lifted the copy off of her chair and opened it to a random page. Suddenly, his eyes opened widely, his finger jabbed at the page. We both looked, and, you guessed it, he was pointing at the word, cannibalism. "Cannibalism!" Gerard exclaimed. "Es thees book about cannibalism?" I couldn't believe it. As you know, The Golden Notebook es not about cannibalism. Neither the theatre attendant nor Gerard understood why I had collapsed in hysterical laughter. Throughout the performance of A Winter's Tale, Gerard was fidgeting to get out of that theatre so that he could acquire a copy of The Golden Notebook. I'm sure he read all 700+ pages of it, looking for clues.

Ah, those days of youth. If you're gonna have a one-night-stand, make it interesting, I always say.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I have given myself irreparable damage by finishing The Ruins and shifting to the memoirs of Virginia Woolf. Sweet pain. I think that Virginia Woolf is the greatest woman writer of all time.

I'm reading one of the entries in a collection of her essays about her life for the writer's retreat I'm about to attend at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I'm so excited about this retreat that I can hardly concentrate.

So, wouldn't you know that after about a month-long dry spell with my freelance writing business, I mean NO business, I am now a week away from leaving for my retreat and all kinds of business is coming my way. I've had to turn down a couple of editing jobs because I wouldn't have been able to finish them before next Saturday. Now, I'm thinking that I should ride the wave as far as I can. Business-related fear crops up. What if I've finally arrived, and now I'm leaving for an extended vacation. Everything's going to fizzle up and die. The, of course, I'll die, and then it won't matter.

I know that I need to cut myself some slack. I need to find a way to get through the dry times without panicking. I guess they're just going to happen. In the meantime, I am scrambling to make as much progress as I can this week and still finish the pre-reading for this retreat, get everything in order, find a caregiver for The Princess and be ready to hit the road this Saturday. ROAD TRIP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Huzza.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Ruins

I just finished reading The Ruins by Scott Smith. If you plan to read it, stop here, because I'm about to take a stroll through it.

Reading The Ruins as a writer, got through the first 75 pages and asked myself how this writer managed to get me to follow these people into the jungle when I didn't particularly like any of them.

The Ruins is about four recent college grads on vacation in Cancun, who go off on an adventure to help an acquaintance find his brother. The college grads are comprised of two American couples, Eric and Stacy and Jeff and Amy. Although they have distinct personalities, none of them stands out as a person I would follow on a day trip away from the beach. When their German friend, Mathias, tells them that he must travel to an obscure Mayan archaeological dig to retrieve his lovesick brother, Jeff volunteers himself and his friends to keep him company. And let the foreshadowing begin.

None of the Americans really seem happy to leave the beach. Eric is so hung over, I expect his eyes to start bleeding, Stacy doesn't seem to think about whether she wants to go or not...she just follows Jeff's lead and remains the classic follower until there's...um...no one left to follow. Amy whines about going but then remembers she's been criticized for whining and summarily shuts up and goes. And I follow right along with them, thinking, "They're not really prepared. Do they know where they're going? Should they trust Mathias?" They have a hand-written map, where public transportation only takes them within 15 miles of the spot. The bus ride is ominous, the pickup truck ride to the trail head is stressful, the truck driver tries to warn them, they encounter an entire town of Mayans who try to stop them, and Amy continues to snap photos. At the last minute, a smiling Greek, bearing the gift of three bottles of tequila, joins them.

That the Greek speaks no English is only one of the language barriers the Americans encounter. They can't talk to the Mayans either. And the Mayans are clearly trying to tell them something kind of important. Something like, Don't Step Onto The Hill With The Red Flowering Vine. They do, of course, and that seals their fate. Looking back, I don't know why I didn't predict the end. They all die. There are no heroes, no survivors. Their collective penchant for sniping at each other and their private pools of fear and self-doubt take them straight to their deaths.

That pretty red-flowered vine turns out to be a carnivorous plant with super human abilities. It can mimic them in their own voices and knows just what to say to hurt them better than a kid sister with a crush on her sister's boyfriend. When hunger makes them swoon, it can engulf the hilltop with scents like freshly baked bread or steaks barbecuing. Yep. It's one mean plant. But the two couples, the German and the Greek never really question what it is or why the Mayans feel the need to keep them on the hill at gunpoint. They never try to find a weakness in their enemy. Nor do they work to make a plan to escape. They wait, hoping that the Greek's companions will come for them. Two other Greek men, who don't speak any English, Spanish or Mayan, are their only hope for survival from this situation.

Is there a message here? Something beyond entertainment? The Ruins does break a lot of formula expectations. No survivors, no heroes, no escape plan. They are four Americans, newly graduated from college, affluent, white and ready to begin adult life. By American standards, they are four young people who have the world by the ass. Yet they are not prepared to survive any difficulties. In fact, they are all basically lead to their deaths, whining and longing for another drink.

Another thing that Smith does is he keeps them all alive for an agonizingly long time after their fate is sealed. I kept expecting people to start dying off. But no one dies until more than 3/4 of the book is gone. Once the first one dies, though, Jill comes tumbling after...they drop pretty quickly. The sad part is, I'm grateful to see them go. They're the kind of people you might have a drink with at a tavern and never remember any of their names an hour later.

Okay...since I said at the beginning that I was going to go through the book, I don't feel like I've spoiled anything for anyone. Just thinking it through.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Literary Discussion Groups

I long for a literary discussion group...someone to read with and talk about books. A group of women I know started a group, but it only met for three months before the women started whining about how it was too much work to do the reading. Sigh.

I could go to the internet and look for a group in Seattle. Surely there must be one that also has enough technical prowess to be able to advertise in a way where I can find them. I came across a blog of a discussion group in Sarasota through an email exchange with a woman I met on Nathan Bransford's blog. The group's reading list is incredible and goes back ten years.

I wonder if the group has remained static in its membership all this time. There must be a core group which has maintained attendance over the years. What do they know of each other's lives outside of their monthly discussions of Kundera or Murdock or Garcia-Marquez? How much could you learn about a person over ten years by discussing nothing but literature?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ah, lovely pastime...

Two more rejections from agent queries. How lovely. Now I can check these off my list.

I was ready, though, if they wanted me to send the first 3 chapters. I have decided to offer electronic submissions in the body of an email, as a Word attachment or in pre-shredded format.

Write well, query widely. The problem is, how do I know that I've written well? I am not in a position to be objective about my book. Those who've read it have all raved about it...that is, all except for John, who merely stated that it wasn't his genre. Should I keep having people read it? What's the deal here?

I was in my meditation chamber earlier (my shower) and I thought, maybe this first novel will be something I come back to ten years from now and think, "Wow! I can't believe I sent this out like this." And then I'll see how to turn it into something that sells.

Friday, May 25, 2007

S&S Snafu

Okay...I'm not an expert in the publishing industry as of yet. But I am a techie, and, as a techie, I've been wondering in what ways the internet and technical advancement will change the way books are published and presented.

I don't know about you, but I'm reading more and more from my computer screen. I'm not actually reading novels from my laptop, but I'm reading a fair amount of short fiction and tons of non-fiction from my internet connection. Not only that, but I'm ordering books from Amazon more than anyplace else these days, since they can supply everything in print and lots of things that aren't. And all of my local book sellers are out of business. Oh, I will go to Elliot Bay Books in Seattle or 3rd Place Books. But my Totem bookstore in Monroe closed its doors last year, and I've been hitting that evil "Buy Now With 1 Click" button more than I care to admit. Amazon has gotten practically all of my book and music buying business these days. If you want to make me feel guilty about it, don't. I fully realize what my consumer practices do to the little guy.

Anyway, the point is that I'm using technology more and more to acquire books and music. If I want to find something like a short story by John Cheever or the lyrics to a song sung by Petula Clark, I can find 'em through Google. If I'm doing research, I can search databases my local library subscribes to from my computer at home. I can even access the articles and print them out.

Speaking of Google, the folks at Google have embarked on a Library Project. The goals of the project are as follows:

The Library Project's aim is simple: make it easier for people to find relevant books – specifically, books they wouldn't find any other way such as those that are out of print – while carefully respecting authors' and publishers' copyrights. Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.

Is the penny about to drop yet? How about this:

If the book is out of copyright, you’ll be able to view and download the entire book. In all cases, you'll see links directing you to online bookstores where you can buy the book and libraries where you can borrow it.

Now, think the words, Print On Demand...yes, Print On Demand...POD, POD....

So, if the book was first published by S&S, it will never go out of copyright, right? You may be able to borrow it for free from a library, but you'll never be able to download it for free.

So, who benefits here if the book publisher never relinquishes the rights? Just the publishing house? What about the writer who would not get any royalties for a book which is being freely distributed through Google's library? It's not just Print On Demand, it's Download On Demand.

There are so many implications here, and I haven't thought them all through. I'm just blathering here, but my mind is all over this. What if a book, Tammy's Tasty Chocolate Syrup Sculpting Book, went out of print and became a downloadable free, public domain book through the Google library. Tammy spent her $5000 advance several years ago, and S&S doesn't even remember that they published the dang thing. Then, Archie Ballinger, the famous fetish sculptor and confection enthusiast mentions Tammy's book on his enthralling reality sculpting TV program and 3,475,219 people download the book from the Google library for free. S&S doesn't know about the potential money it could have made through print copies, let alone by offering it as an internet download. But it's scratching its head, wondering how to maximize its profits. In the meantime, Tammy has pawned her candy thermometer to buy catfood.

Alternately, S&S retained rights to the work, so, when Archie becomes the tipping point for this work, S&S can offer downloads of the book for a price. They don't sell as many copies as were downloaded in the free scenario, but they make a profit and Tammy experiences an unexpected windfall.

Okay...that's just one scenario. I know there are all kinds of things I haven't considered. And maybe I'm way off base and am missing the whole point. But we be living in interesting times. Yes, indeedy.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Phrase a Week

As a writer, I'm always interested in word, their origin and understanding how they're put together. Well, I thought you all might be too. There's this thing called a phrase a week, where they'll send you an email explaining the origin of that week's phrase. To sign up for it, just go to this web site:


And give 'em your name and email address. This week's phrase is pasted below:

By and large


On the whole; generally speaking; all things considered.


Many phrases are wrongly ascribed a nautical origin just because they sound like mariner's lingo. This one really is and, like many such nautical phrases, it originated in the days of sail.

To get a sense of the original meaning of the phrase we need to understand the nautical terms 'by' and 'large'. 'Large' is easier, so we'll start there. When the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship's direction of travel then it is said to be 'large'. Sailors have used this term for centuries. For example, this piece from Richard Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1591:

"When the wind came larger we waied anchor and set saile."

When the wind is in that favourable large direction the largest square sails may be set and the ship is able to travel in whatever downwind direction the captain sees fit.

'By' is a rather more difficult concept for landlubbers like me. In simplified terms it means 'in the general direction of'. Sailors would say to be 'by the wind' is to face into the wind or within six compass points of it.

The earliest known reference to 'by and large' in print is from Samuel Sturmy, in The Mariners Magazine, 1669:

"Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge."

by and largeTo sail 'by and large' required the ability to sail not only as earlier square-rigged ships could do, i.e. downwind, but also against the wind. At first sight, and for many non-sailors I'm sure second and third sight too, it seems impossible that a sailing ship could progress against the wind. They can though. The physics behind this is better left to others. Suffice it to say that it involves the use of triangular sails which act like aeroplane wings and provide a force which drags the ship sideways against the wind. By the use of this and by careful angling of the rudder the ship can be steered slightly into the wind.

The 19th century windjammers like Cutty Sark were able to maintain progress 'by and large' even in bad wind conditions by the use of many such aerodynamic triangular sails and large crews of able seamen.

Stacking the Deck

Okay...here's the plan. I am going to create the perfect writing environment for myself tomorrow and dedicate the day to working on my novel. Yes. The novel and nothing but the novel. No tech writing, my freelance customers will have to sit on their thumbs for a spell. No work on my flash writing class, even though I'm falling behind. No searching and fearless inventories. Nada, niente, nuttin. Just the novel.

I will rise early and drive to Seattle. Yes. I can drive now. I replaced the broken iPod and just finished synching it with my iTunes, so it will be okay to get in the car and go somewhere. When I got in my car this morning and the iPod made a screeching noise, I looked at it and saw that it actaully had an unhappy face on it! :( "This is no time to be cutsey, Apple," I thought, as I turned the car off and returned to my laptop. The apple support page for iPod confirmed my fear that I had experienced a hardware failure.

Here were my choices. Cancel my vacation. Don't go to the roomofonesown writer's retreat at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico next month. Just buy a few half gallons of ice cream in assorted flavors and surrender to life's terms in my own small way. Or, I could name this unfortunate event an emergency and bring out the tools reserved only for emergency measures...My Credit Card!

The Nano is not like the iPod, in that it only holds 4 gigs. Who would ever think that my music and my audio books would fill it to capacity? I have about a quarter of a gig left. But I'm almost through listening to Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. I read it when it first came out and was intrigued when I saw that the audio version was narrated by the author. My audio reading list is growing out of proportion now that I'm working from home. I used to get a lot of reading done when I commuted. (Is it reading if you listen to it?) I have four books and a stack of the New Yorker to listen to.

Anyway, this brings me back to my writer's morning in Seattle tomorrow. I will be able to go only because the iPod disaster was averted through the use of the emergency-only credit card.

So, I shall go to the Panama Hotel, order a pot of Earl Grey with Lavender tea and sit at one of their wicker tables with a notebook and work on my novel. There will be no butterscotch for those who let three days go by without working on their novels! Tsk tsk.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Adieu, Miss Snark

I can't believe it. Miss Snark is closing her blog. I will miss her. I don't know whether she knows it, oh, I'm sure she does, but I not only read her web page, but followed links from her page to blogs of many other writers. She was doing more than just supplying me with snarkly advise. Closing down her blog will be a loss to writers.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Checking In

Just because I haven't been posting for a few days doesn't mean I'm not working on my writing. Esta and I went to a book signing and reading last week at the All About Kids bookstore in Seattle. The list of local writers and illustrators in attendance was amazing.

I picked up a copy of Janet Lee Carey's book, Dragon's Keep, along with a handful of buttons for the web site, Readergirlz, she and other local writers have created for teen girls to have an online reading community.

Also in attendance was Katherine Kirkpatrick, who wrote The Snow Baby, The Arctic Childhood of Admiral Robert E. Peary's Daring Daughter. I met Kirkpatrick at the Whidbey Island Writers' Conference a few years ago. We sat together at the evening reception and chatted for a few minutes. She stood out from the crowd of writers in attendance because she was the only one among them who was able to carry on a conversation on a topic other than herself.

Kirkpatrick has authored several books, which are listed on her web site at http://www.katherinekirkpatrick.com/index.html. Snow Baby looks to be her best work yet. She presented Snow Baby to us with the sense of wonder she must have had as she uncovered each sparkling detail.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

No Prudes Allowed

Okay...I just started reading The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, and I'm having a great time. Such a well-deserved recipient of the Newbery, the book is a fun read. I checked it out from the library, though, not because it won the Newbery, but because of the controversy surrounding the first page. I'll admit it. I'm a sucker for a hen fight.

On the first page of this book, written to the middle-school category (ages 11 - 14), an unfortunate dog named Roy is bitten on the scrotum by a snake. The presence of the word, scrotum, has twisted panties across the nation and caused an enormous stir.

And we wonder why Europeans laugh at us. What kind of a person would object to such a thing? Are there really such puritanical hypocrites who think that children's vocabularies should be censored to this degree? Scrotums exist. They happen, on dogs and humans.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Book Reviews on Web Page

I finally updated my web page. Yeah, I have a blog and a web page. So, what? But, you raise a good question. Why do I have a blog? And why do I have a web page?

I sort of envision this blog as a place to post information on the craft of writing, sort of a record of a journey. When my first novel is published, this blog will mark the milestones of the journey, for me more than anyone else. I've seen how blogs are used well as a networking tool. Blogs don't work in that regard until after a certain tipping point in one's career, a place where I have yet to arrive.

Likewise, the web page. Vanity, more than anything else, caused me to buy nancycorbett.com. Just as vanity caused me to do a search for hits on my name. I've had several short pieces and personal essays published on line, and I wanted to see what would come up. To my surprise, there are several nancy corbetts out there who return on a google search. There's a New York attorney, a university professor, and a receptionist at a small company who share my name.

The web site, nancycorbett.com, was acquired for a mere $9.95 and is a place for me to put stuff. I have some slide shows of hikes John and I have taken here in the Pacific Northwest. And I have started a series of book reviews. The books I am reading in 2007 will all appear under various categories. It's fun more than anything else. And I'm not freaking out if I don't put every ounce of my strength into it. When it ceases to be fun, I won't do it anymore.

I have a hosting company that's run by a bunch of kids and they do an okay job of keeping everything up and running. Plus, they run on Linux, and they let me create my own shell accounts so that I can do things from a command line, plus, they run MySQL, plus I can do everything I need to do without bothering them, plus they're cheap. Dreamhost also maintains my anonymity when it comes to my domain ownership. So, if you run a whois on me, you can't find my home address, phone number and bra size. Of course, on my business web page for SoftCopy, I do give my email address and phone number, but not my bra size.

Anyway, I finally got around to updating the personal web page and added the latest book review on The Thirteenth Tale. Boy! What a great debut novel! Wish I could have said something to do it justice.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Getting Into It

I had a particularly satisfying day yesterday, working on my new novel. I've been priming myself for it, noticing I'm afraid to commit. Starting a new novel is like asking someone to go steady with me for a year or so. My head whispers, "what if you can't get this one published either?" Then, "What if this is the one that makes it and GIO stays in the drawer? Keep going." "What if you can't finish it?" "What if your critique group doesn't like it?"

It's endless, really.

Bottom line is that when I write, I'm happy. I love getting into what I call The Zone. I haven't done that, really, since I went through the last round of strenuous edits on GIO.

So, yesterday, I was meeting a friend in Seattle for lunch but had another appointment in Bellevue earlier in the day, so I had some hours to kill. I went to the International District (I don't know why they don't just call it the Asian District) and bought a cute, pink notebook to write in. Blank pages. Pink is not my favorite color, but it seemed somehow cheerful. The pink notebook looked like it wanted to be filled.

On Main and 6ths is an old place called the Panama Hotel. It has the most wonderful tea and espresso area with WiFi, comfortable tables and chairs, pictures of Seattle when it was a baby and beautiful, long-stemmed tulips and calla lillies in vases all around. It also has my favorite bathroom, which may be TMI, but there it is. It's a clean, well-lighted place.

I ordered a pot of Earl Grey with lavendar tea and wrote for nearly three hours without looking up. It's all in there, in me, the whole book. Oh, I know there are lots of corners I haven't turned, things will happen that will shock and amaze me along the way, but it's already in there.

Maybe all types of artists understand this, but I know writers especially understand when Michelangelo said that the form was already in the marble, he was merely releasing it. That's such an elegant way of saying what I find to be the case with my writing.

So, I'm off! My job is to write and to keep the editor chained up outside in the garage until the first draft is done. It's okay. The editor knows the rules. Chains and duct tape. Let her RIP!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Flashquake Flash Class

So, I'm starting an online course on writing flash fiction tomorrow. I'm excited because three friends from my online writer's critique group will be attending along with me. Marie, the ringleader and heartbeat of our critique group found the class and urged me and a few others to take it.

I've watched her delve into writing flash over the last year, and I've tried it a bit myself. I have a series of flashes which I refer to as the Corporate America series. One of them was published on Salome back in October. And I submitted one to Flashquake and got a note back saying that it was a bit over the top for them. I recently reread that piece and found that it's a bit over the top for me, too.

As with any class, I'm excited and am wondering what I'll learn. I like to give myself over to the process, pay attention to where I feel resistance to it and make an effort to do everything suggested, whether it makes sense to me or not.

I've taken several online courses over the past few years. Some of them have been emmensely helpful and others not so. There are many, many people out there who promote themselves as being qualified to take my money to make me a better writer. Flashquake, though, is known for its integrity as a site dedicated to the art of flash fiction and to publishing an array of talent.

Reading flash fiction, I have found so many writers I admire and have read so many pieces which have taken me into deep waters within a very short space. I like reading flash. It's all over the place in both print and electronic form. When I come across a piece I really like, I do a search for more of their work. There are some talented folks out there writing in this form. They make it look easy, but it's not.

I've seen some debate about the length of a piece of flash. Some say it must be fewer than 1000 words. Many of the publications I've seen ask for under 700 or even 500 words. I've even seen some challenging writers to submit pieces of 100 words or less.

The shortness of these fiction pieces makes them a quick read, sort of like a bag of candy I can dip into and pull out a unique flavor each time. Much fun.

But in the upcoming month, I'm going to try and hone my skills at writing the stuff. We'll see what comes out of my bag.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Books on Writing

Just about every writer of worth, and some of none, have written books on writing. I don't know how many are on my shelf. Every time I go to a writer's conference, I add new ones of the writers I've met at the conferences, especially if they are good workshop leaders or talented teachers. That's what I thought of Nancy Kress when I met her at a conference. She was personable and a good teacher.

As for books on writing, my favorites are two books by Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones and especially Wild Mind. I have bought and given these books away numerous times. I remember having a writer's breakthrough back around 1990 with the help of these books. A couple of weeks ago, I ran across Writing Down the Bones at a conference and snapped it up again. Going through it is like spending time with an old friend who really cares about my writing. I'm using it to help me keep the conference glow going.

Another book on writing I appreciate is On Writing by Stephen King. King is so good at voice, he even has a great one for himself in this book which is part text on how to be a good writer and part memoir. His mix of self-disclosure and tips on writing could not be pulled off by anyone else. The best way to read this book is in audio format, because King reads it himself. His casual tone feels like he's just taken a seat in my livingroom wingback chair and started talking while I pour the tea.

I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the writers who have contributed books on the topic of writing. They keep me going when I lose momentum.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dry Well

Sometimes, I just can't get it going. No matter how much I want to write, I just become a wall. There are lots of ways to look at it.

I'm working on something right now, and I can't work on it. Every time I approach it, I go blank. Leslie Marmon Silko calls these stillbirths. I could put it on the shelf, like I have tons of other writings that ran out of steam, but this one seems important. The block isn't because there's nothing there, but because there's too much there. I can feel it, like a knot under the skin, wanting to be released.

When I was a student at a community college, there was a creative writing instructor there whom I just despised. I felt that he had no inclination to teach or nurture his students. His primary face was that of arrogance. Anyone who knows me understands that arrogance is an unforgivable sin with me. I just can't stand it. But I can be arrogant with the big boys myself. It's a manifestation of fear. Anyway, this instructor did me a couple of good turns, in spite of his efforts not to. He introduced me to Henry James. Who would I be without James? And he said that thing about getting to the real story. What he said was this:

No one can ever get to the real story. There's always a story underneath the one you're telling that you can't get to.

Be it through fear, self-delusion, denial, we can't get to the real story. Well, I became determined, dedicated to always try to get to the real story, to be unflinching in the face of my fears, to pick at my denials and to look at things once I put them down and try to tickle out the meat.

I don't know if I've succeeded. But I've always tried.

Now, with the short story in question, The Recipe, I can't seem to shake anything loose. It's all too knotted up. Maybe if I took up running. No, I have to lose 35 pounds first. Can't take that much time. Maybe if I stick my head in the river. No. Headache. Maybe if I deprive myself of WoW. Now, we're getting close. How long could I possibly go without playing WoW?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Writers' Groups

Ya always hear that writers' groups, critique groups, are important to developing the writing skills. My critique group is an online group, called Write Stuff Extreme. The group has between fifteen and twenty members, about half of whom are active. Folks post writings of all kinds, short stories, flash, poetry, personal essay, and novels.

The online forum works well and has many advantages.

  1. We are free from the constraints of time. Being online, I don't have to wait until Tuesday at 7:00 PM to present something. I can post a chapter or a story whenever I want.
  2. Participants can critique whenever they choose. The meeting place is open 24/7.
  3. Critiques trickle in but can be read the the poster at any time.
  4. The group membership is not limited to people who are in geographic proximity. We have people from all over the US. Some groups are international. Well, we do have a member who is in China, so I guess we ARE an international group.
  5. We are somewhat anonymous. It's interesting posting work for critique by people I've never met. But something happens when I read a critique delivered by someone in the written form. On one hand, it can create misunderstandings. You can't hear someone's voice, the inflections, nor can you see the body language of the critic. That's a double-edged sword.
  6. I participate from home or wherever my laptop and I are. I can attend the group in my pajamas (and often do).

Over time, we have all gotten to know each other fairly well. And any new arrival will drastically change the dynamic of the group. Being a fairly small group, we have all gotten to know each other's writing and critique styles. New people are introduced through invitation and usually serve to get the air moving around in our small cave.

It's a strange thing to explain to someone who isn't involved in internet community, but I communicate with the people of my critique group almost every day. Most of us exchange something every day. There have been times when I've been disappointed by the critiques I get, usually when it seems like everyone glossed over something I wrote and didn't really say anything useful. Gee, that was good! isn't my idea of a critique. But I've gotten some very strong and helpful things from the group as well. They kept me on course with my novel and ensured that it was completed. I can't ask for anything more than that.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

audible.com, i love you!

In addition to always having a book in my hand when I'm not doing things like working on the computer or driving, I always have an audio book going. I have been a subscriber to audible.com for around 3 years, now. And I always get 2 books every month and the New York Times. Right now, I also get a weekly audio version of the New Yorker. Life is rich.

Audio books are great productions these days. There are some unbelievably talented readers, who manage to make every character voice unique. Some books are read by the authors, themselves. Some can pull it off, while others can't. I've learned a lot about ordering audio books.

1. Never get anything that isn't unabridged. Why would I want an abridged version of ANY book? Sheesh!

2. Don't order anything that's not main stream literature. No classics. The recording quality of all the classics I've ever ordered has been terrible 100% of the time. I have to jack the sound up as high as it will go, and it's still hard to hear. I would love to listen to Dante or Virgil or Fitzgerald or Joyce, but no can do in the realm of audio books. I end up wanting to drive my car off the road and into a ditch, which would be overkill.

Some books may even be better in audio version. I read (can you say you read it if you listened to it?) The Devil Wears Prada and The Nannie Diaries in my car. They had me laughing and crying and driving around the block so that I could listen for just a few minutes more. I listened to 8 books on my last road trip. That's when I first heard the books by Sue Monk Kidd. I couldn't put them down...figuratively speaking.

I actually miss commuting because I don't get as much reading done.

Today, I began listening to Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. I read the book the instant it came out, just as I do with books by all of my beloved living authors. The book is narrated by Barbara, herself. Within the first few minutes, I found my mind wandering.

My mind wasn't wandering because the book didn't have what it took to hold my attention, but because the richness of her language and the closeness with which she holds me to the character's chest sent me to thinking about my own writing. How can I do that? I began thinking about my unfinished short story, The Love Potion. Maybe I should make it 3rd person. Maybe I should go back and put the reader inside the character's, trapped in her time limited body. The whole thing is so expository right now, and I know that this ain't going to fly.

I have a white paper to write, and the customer is justifiably getting antsy. But I really, really need to look at this story. Shit. Shit. Shit.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Internet Trends

Patricia Wood's debut book, Lottery, isn't even out yet, but she's created a buzz that's gotten me to order a copy of it from Amazon nearly 5 months before it comes out. How has she done this? Well, one way is through blogging. I saw an entry on Miss Snark's blog about Lottery, which prompted me to go to Amazon, which led me to Patricia's blog, which...well, you get the picture.

During the SCBWI Conference lunch, I sat at the "YA Why Not" table, where I became the unpopular voice regarding kids and the internet. The general consensus was that the internet is a dark place, populated mostly by drooling pedophiles, and how should we get kids away from it. Eek. My stance was that the internet is a place full of possibilities. We need to make safe places for kids to go, and we can harness the internet to improve our own craft and create a more cohesive community among writers and readers. The three of them looked at me like they wanted me to stuff my sandwich in my mouth to shut me up. What can you expect from people who probably still have dial up...if that?

A group of Puget Sound area women writers have created a great web space for teen girl readers. Readergirlz is a web site moderated by Janet Lee Carey, Lori Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun, and Justina Chen Headley. Their manifesto is all about having serious fun while talking about books. The site delivers all kinds of fun for teen girls. Music, art, videos, and books!

If adults are getting into blogging, imagine where kids are with it. They're always a few steps ahead of us when it comes to technology. A web site such as Readergirlz makes me tingle all over. It's just the kind of thing I like to see. Harnessing technology to create a place for teen girls is so very way cool.

Having worked in the tech field and being a card carrying member of the Anita Borg mailing list, Systers, I am concerned about the challenges women face entering into technical fields. Most of the problems women face in tech fields is so insidious and ambiguous. Yet, if you frequent a women's forum on technology for any length of time, you will find that we face a barrage of prejudice and resistence regarding our presence which we are struggling, ourselves, to address and define. Such a large part of the abuse women endure involves being told that we are over reacting or imagining things, it is not surprising to find that we question, amongst ourselves, the validity of our perceptions. Through the use of blogs, public abuse of women who attain any level of success is prevelant and has received a lot of press lately. The Washington Post published an article today describing all of the facets of this complex issue.

Which brings me back to girls and technology. Women are here to stay in the tech world. We need to stand our ground and not allow intimidation tactics to push us away. Kids are going to find their way through the world, with or without our guidance, and the internet is going to be a part of that path. Girls need to have a place on that path where they don't have to fight just to be there. We writers can position ourselves along that path and make their journey richer.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Writing is Dangerous

So, what DID I take away with me from the Puget Sound Area's SCBWI conference yesterday? A stack of books, a skosh of motivation and a few good pointers on where to focus my energy.

Justina Chen Headley led a workshop on finding the heart in your story. The workshop was a display of her openness and commitment to baring her own vulnerabilities to tell the story that needs to be told. She spoke of having the courage to get down on paper the real heart of the matters that brought us to the page in the first place. It brought me back to a place I'd been a few months ago. I need to be reminded that writing is dangerous.

About six months ago, I watched the documentary on Bukowski, and the main thing I got from it was the concept of writing being dangerous. According to Bukowski, if a piece of writing isn't dangerous, it's worthless. This prompted me to take take this to my online writer's group and post a challenge that we all write something decidedly dangerous. Some great stuff came from that exercise.

I once had a creative writing teacher in community college who contended that the best stories, the real stories, never get down on paper because we can't get there. I remember making a promise to myself that I would not flinch from writing the real story.

How could I forget, again, about my promise, about Bukowski, about danger? I owe a debt of gratitude to Justina for taking me back to the heart.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

SCBWI Conference

I just got back from the annual conference put on by my local chapter of the society of children's book writers and illustrators (SCBWI). Boy! They should find a shorter acronym. The event was well organized and went without a hitch.

I always feel so inspired after spending the day around such great and talented people. The illustrators gave great presentations, the local published writers were fun and lively. There were some presenters who were very full of themselves, but, overall, it was a positive vibe.

Even while I feel inspired, I get that sense of being a grain of sand in a pile of poppy seeds. There are so many of us, and I'm not the one with any value. That's how I feel. Many on the unpublished side of the fence are practically rabid with hope and need. I'm on that unpublished side of the fence, but I went without an agenda of finding that agent or publisher who would think me wonderful.

I need to observe and absorb right now. While conferences are informative, there is a distinct them and us feel to them. The agents, publishers, editors, published artists and writers glomb together as professionals in a field, while the rest of us stand outside the gate, feverishly wanting inside.

One minute, I think Giving It Over is a great novel. The next minute, I think it's tripe. I can't be objective about it any more. So, what's the deal? Spend money on professional critiques? Oh, yes. There are many people out there willing to take my money. What makes their opinion any better than those of my critique group or any of the other people who've read my book?

Maybe if I just focus on book 2, the geek girl story, I'll be okay. I need to get lost in it. Then there's that short story about the love potion I haven't finished. Yeah. I've definately got stuff I could be doing. Going to this conference is good fuel. And then there's the retreat in June.

Just keep swimming.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Novel Finished

I completed Giving It Over several months ago and am embarking on that oh-so-fun quest for representation. I've used Writer's Query and the Writer's Market to find agents and have been sending off whatever their guidelines stipulate, one or two at a time. A few have asked to see pages. One agent, whom I met at the Whidbey Island writer's conference told me that she thought the premise of the story was good and wanted to see the first fifty pages. "Now, all we need to know is whether or not you can write."

Apparently, she thought that I couldn't write, because, after reading the first 75 pages of the novel, she declined...as have all others.

Now, I know that agents are busy folks. I have refrained from dogging anyone and asking those burning questions: WTF? and Could you throw me a bone, please?

Whether or not my YA novel ever gets published, I've met many other extremely good, unpublished novelists. I belong to a small, online writer's group, comprised of novelists, short story and flash fiction writers and a few poets. With their support, I finished my first novel and have begun outlining another. They taught me to set aside my fears about never being published and give myself over to the process. Not such a bad deal after all, huh?
Several short pieceds published since my last post:

Personal Essay – The Los Angeles Journal, June 2005 edition, “Waxworks

Personal Travel Essay – E-Marginalia, “Getting Touchy in Tuscany

Short Story – ConteOnline Literary Quarterly, “Pay Me No Mind

Flash Fiction –Salome on October, 2006, “We Would Like to Honor You with Our Appreciation”

Personal Essay – Edifice Wrecked, Nov, 2006, “The Dead Files