Sunday, July 04, 2010

Hello David

As long-time readers of my blog now, one of my favorite tricks for getting to know my characters is to interview them. I plan to interview each and every character in my novel-in-progress before I even look at the Word document again.

To kick off this series of interviews, here's a talk with the main character's love interest.

[A very brief synopsis of my novel in progress:
Two years ago, Emily's sister, Carrie, killed herself around her 30th birthday. The two were very close, but Emily has no idea why Carrie would commit suicide. Emily hoped she might "magically" get some insight into what happened when she herself turned 30. When that didn’t happen, she realized she needs to be more active in solving this mystery.]

Me: Hello David, thanks for agreeing to talk with me.

David: Sure, no problem. What’s up?

Me: Well, I’m writing this novel you know, and you’re a main character, the love interest if you will.

David: Wow. Really?

Me: Yup. And so I need to get to know you better, in order for me to be able to write many many scenes with you in them. So, let’s start in the present and work our way back through your past. What kind of work are you doing now, and do you enjoy it?

David: I’m a scientist. I work at a lab at MIT. I study a really small [plant/organism], and how it is being affected by global warming. I love it because I get to spend a lot of time outside. Then, when I'm inside I get to look at these plain, almost ugly specimen under the microscope and see just how gorgeous they are close up--the way the cell walls are so orderly, the gradation in color of what looks to the naked eye just a plain brown. And of course there’s the larger picture of helping to figure out how plants evolve or don’t evolve in the face of global warming. That’s pretty fascinating and important stuff.

Me: Did you always know you wanted to study ecology?

David: No, I bounced around from major to major when I was in college. Marine biology, computer science. I guess I always knew I wanted to do something science-related. Actually the guy I’m working for now—Professor Paul Starnly—really turned me on to this. I took a class with him undergrad where we went out to the pond on campus and collected specimen of various plants and fish life and studied them back in the lab. I found myself checking in on my experiments on Friday nights, before going out with friends at the local pub. He caught me there one night and said, “Hooked, are you?” And it was then I realized I was. I left UMass to study at MIT for my grad work, and lo and behold, Paul ended up here too, so when I got my Ph.D., he hired me.

Me: And your social life, what’s that like here?

David: I play in a band with a few friends. We’ve done a gig here or there, but we really just like getting together, having a few drinks and playing classic rock tunes. One of the guys, Tony, writes his own stuff, so we play that, too. Other than that, I hang out at Hugh’s pub a lot. I like the atmosphere, and I’ve made friends with a lot of the staff and some of the other regulars.

Me: Like Emily.

David: Yea.

Me: Full disclosure: She’s the main character in my book.

David: No kidding. Well, Emily’s awesome, so I can see why she would be. Plus, with all that’s going on with her trying to figure out what the fuck happened with her sister…

Me: Yea, exactly. I’m going to get pretty personal here. Hope you don’t mind… But you’ve fallen for her, haven’t you?

David: (Blushing) Well, of course I have. Why else would I lend her my car, offer to accompany her to her crazy mom’s house to talk dirty family laundry shit. I mean, maybe I’d lend my car to one of the guys in the band, but I doubt I’d volunteer to spend my Saturday refereeing between them and a batshit parent.

Me: So why haven’t you made a move yet?

David: (Thinking) Well, first of all, we’re friends. I really like her. I don’t want to go to kiss her, have her reject me, and never be able to hang out the same again. I really can’t tell how she feels. I think I’ve made it pretty obvious how I feel, but she hasn’t given me any hints. And she’s clearly under a lot of stress now. What's she's going through has allowed us to get closer--I didn't spend a lot of time alone with her before I found her alone on the balcony of her birthday party and she told me about her sister's death. But she's clearly got a lot on her mind, and I don't want to add to her stress. So I think I’ll just lay low, be a good friend to her until I get a good sense of what she wants from me.

Me: (Smiling)

David: Wait! You know something! What do you know! What does Emily feel towards me!?!

Me: (Still smiling. Shrugs) You know I can’t say. Where would all the suspense be if I told you now? You’ll just have to wait and see.

David: (Lighting a cigarette) Fine. What’s your next line of inquiry then?

Me: Let’s talk about your previous girlfriends.

David: Awesome. (Inhales and exhales) There’s really only one you would need to know about. Laura. We dated for a few years
during grad school. Two and a half, to be exact. I loved her. Wanted to marry her. Then she got pregnant. I was actually kind of excited about it, even though the timing was awful. We were both grad students—she studied English lit. We had no money, a tiny, drafty apartment just a few blocks from the ghetto in J.P. But I didn’t care about all that. I figured we’d make it work, even if I had to take a break from my program for a while and get a job to save some money. Looking back, I think I was excited about it because it would cement us as a family, it would make Laura have to stay with me—I didn’t consciously know it at the time, but she was already pulling away little by little. I must’ve sensed that, or I wouldn’t have been so fucking excited for this baby to glue us together. She wanted to have an abortion. She gave all the practical arguments, our careers, the timing, our bank account. I just kept saying we would make it work. I even gave ideas how it could work. But she wouldn’t listen to them. Finally she said, “It’s my body and I’ll do what I want. I made the appointment for next week.” I stood there with my jaw open. Of course it was her body. Of course she had the right to do what she wanted with it. But we were supposed to be a team. We were supposed to make these kinds of decisions together. We were a family, albeit an undocumented one. I think I said something like, “I thought we were in this together.” And she just cried and shook her head. The next day, she had a miscarriage. A few weeks later, she had moved out. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Me: Oh man. That’s a tough breakup.

David: (Lighting another cigarette) Yup. Before and after her, there were girlfriends who lasted a few weeks, a month or two. But nothing serious. I just didn’t find anyone I liked spending time with as much as I had Laura. Until…

Me: Emily.

David: Yea. I even like driving in the car with her—on long trips, she always falls asleep, but before she does, we have interesting talks about the news, or sing along to bands I didn’t think anyone else had heard of. And even when she’s asleep, she’s still good company. I don’t know how to explain it. It feels a bit like it does when I go home to my parents house and need to escape the chaos so I take their dog--a black lab-- out for a walk in the woods. She’s good company, even though she’s not saying a word. That’s how Emily is when she’s asleep. Silent, good company.

Me: I don’t know how well she’d take being compared to a Labrador.

David: Yea, don’t mention that to her…

Me: OK, one last line of questioning, which you provided the perfect segue to: your family.

David: (Taking a big breath in and out). Yea, they’re as crazy as the day is long. My parents got divorced when I was 15, and then they recently got remarried. I guess they forgot how miserable they made each other, and everyone around them. He hit her, for fuck’s sake. He hit me! Apparently he’s gotten control of himself. Got into some self help program. Forgive me if I don’t believe him. I’ve got cigarette burns on my thighs that prove just how in control of himself he is…. And even if he has changed, I don’t have to forgive him for making my childhood hell. Hell, for making most of my life hell. Anytime I’m near someone and they raise their arm—maybe to signal a bartender—I flinch, and my memory quickly spirals back to one of the many times my father’s large hand smacked me across the face, sending me falling onto my ass. Then my date or whoever I’m with sits there questioning me about why I got so quiet all of a sudden, and I curse the bastard for intruding on my night.

My mom? I guess she was just lonely. Not exactly easy for an overweight, chain smoking secretary to find a man out in the Berkeshires, I guess. Or who knows, maybe she really thinks he has changed. Maybe she has a real connection to the good times she swears they had together, though I don’t remember them. Maybe she has a much larger capacity for compassion than I do. Or maybe she’s just an idiot. I try to think it’s the compassion, but there are times when I can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s just stupid when it comes to men in general, my father in particular. But I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, so let’s go with the fact that she’s a much nicer person than I am.

Me: OK, on a lighter note: What’s your favorite color?

David: Green

Me: Drink?

David: Guiness

Me: Season?

David: Fall

Me: Author?

David: David Foster Wallace

Me: Sport?

David: Shrugs. I’m a fair weather fan. I’ll watch them all if they’re on and other people around are into them. But I don’t go crazy watching every game of any one team, until they’re in the finals.

Me: Place in the world?

David: Hands down, Arenal volcano, Costa Rica. Went there for a specimen gathering expedition with Paul one summer in college. Fell in love. The fog, the heat, the people, the coffee. These flowers called Touch Me Nots, which actually contract if you touch them, like a shy little kid shrinking behind his mom’s legs. So amazing.

Me: Thanks for your time, David. Good luck with you know who. (Smiling broadly)

David: That's the thanks I get? Being teased about what you know and I don't? Well, you're welcome I guess. Best Blogger Tips

Back...hopefully for good!

It’s been a long, long time. I apologize....But I'm back doing some creative work, so I thought I'd share.

I started futzing with some plants a lovely neighbor gave me when I admired her garden. I sewed a slip cover of sorts onto the straps of my favorite backpack after the material there started ripping and fraying. And, last but far, far from least, I started playing around with my novel again!

First, I organized the outline. I did this by making an index card for each chapter. On the index card, I wrote down the key plot points that occur, which characters are in the chapter, and where the scenes take place. If I noticed holes in the plot (and boy did I), I went to the Word document for that chapter and made notes like MUST MENTION DAVID’S RECENT TRIP TO COSTA RICA or TAKE OUT PART ABOUT HUGH.

This exercise also helped me create a list of the characters and settings that take place in the book. My next step is to get to know each of those people and places in depth so that when I go to revise, I know lots and lots about all of my key players. You'll see one of my tricks for learning about my characters in my next post. Best Blogger Tips

Monday, May 17, 2010

JK Rowling On Failure

I graduated from the Harvard Extension School the year JK Rowling gave this speech at Harvard's Commencement. I loved it then, and I love it now.

I hope these quotes from her speech give comfort to anyone going through a tough time (and, if you're not now, just save them for the next time one hits like a tornado)

*Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you have failed by default.

*You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift.

*Given a time turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisitions or achievements. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people...who confuse the two.

*Life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone's total control and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

And for anyone looking for inspiration to get your butt in the chair, and your pen on the page:

* the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"News that will edge your fiction-writing friends closer to suicidal despair"

I love for it's snarky, edgy coverage of everything from current events to books to the latest in bad T.V.

This article about Tyra Banks' new novel will make you laugh through the tears you shed about how hard you have to work to get anything published while famous people just make a call, it seems, and get a book deal.

The opening line had be laugh/crying:

In the latest "news that will edge your fiction-writing friends closer to suicidal despair," television host, model, producer and Fake Hair Academy headmistress Tyra Banks has announced that she is penning a series of fantasy novels for her own Random House imprint, Bankable Books. To paraphrase Ms. Banks herself: Stephenie Meyer, kiss her fat ass. Best Blogger Tips

Thursday, May 06, 2010

And I Quote

I love this quote about writing a novel, from a Powell's Bookstore interview with Brady Udall:

When you read a book, and it's good and you love it and you're just amazed by it, it feels like everything was with intent. It seems like the writer had this amazing ability. I think people who aren't writers don't understand this, and writers don't really advertise this very much. But most of it's just bumbling around and making mistakes. You happen on something, and think, "Oh, this works. Okay." Then you throw something else out, and it's just this chaos that eventually you wrestle into order. Most of it's what I would call mistakes or errors of judgment that turn out well somehow. When I look back, even when I was close to finishing the book, I thought I could never make this work. But somehow I found a way.

Man, that gives me hope! Best Blogger Tips

Monday, May 03, 2010

Birth Announcement

The latest edition to the Junge Literary Family is here!

My baby, a short story named Cartes Postales, came into the world via the New Plains Review a few days ago, and arrived in my loving arms today. After months and months of nurturing her, I'm so proud to see her in print and introduce her to the world.

(You can't read my story online, but if you order a copy of the journal, I'll gladly autograph it for you! If you don't live near the Boston area, message me at writerbug2006 AT yahoo DOT com to coordinate.) Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Calling all poems/stories/essays about death

I might be teaching a course this fall on writing about death and grieving. I'm in the process of gathering up ideas for readings--ie published stories, poems, or essays that deal with the subject. Here's where I turn to you, dear readers: to pick your brains. Any idea are most welcome! (One caveat: they have to be relatively short, ie, it's not helpful for me to get a list of novels that focus on death or dying.)

Thanks in advance! Best Blogger Tips

Loving, Coveting, Sharing

Susan over at the Fiber Farm Blog has a great recurring series that features items and articles she thinks her readers will like. She calls it Probably Something You Would Like.

Well, I, too, come across cool things and want to share them with my readers. So...I'm stealing her idea and calling it: Loving, Coveting, Sharing (LCS)

Here's my first LCS post! Let me know what you think of my finds--and add things you love, covet, and want to share in the comment field.
I so could have used this shoot-through camera bag when we were in Costa Rica. It's basically a camera carrying case with one end uncovered, so you can actually use the camera while it's snug in its carrying case. One day we rented an ATV and drove all over crazy dusty, very pot-holed roads. I took pictures as we went, but I would have felt much more secure if I could have had the camera protected AND been able to shoot the awesome scenery.

Me and the ATV

I am in love with this all natural face cream, The Soy of Life. My sister-in-law, who's an esthetician, has commented when she does my facials how much less dry my skin is since I started using it. It's pricey, but worth it. And it's a small business run by a husband and wife team. I met them at a local fair where they were selling their products and they were nice as could be.


For a long time I've wanted to grow my little menagerie of animals (currently two dogs, a cat, and two bunnies). At the moment, I need, in a deeeep way, to simplify my life, not add to it. But a girl can dream, no? If I ever have the time and energy to take care of more creatures, I'd buy these two books on beekeeping and raising chickens


This time of the year, I'm usually getting package after package from Michigan Bulbs, a great gardening catalog whose products never fail to impress. But, see my note above about simplifying. So I'm limiting myself to growing veggies and a few flowers from seeds, and otherwise just tending the stuff I already have.

(I promise I'll post some garden pics this weekend--the tulips I planted last year are gorgeous!) Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Welcome Writing Space readers

I'm so honored that Kim Smith, over at Writing Space chose to highlight my blog this week. Welcome to all her readers! Pull up a chair, read some posts, and say hello in the comments, if you please. :) Best Blogger Tips

Some good (scary!) news!

An essay I wrote about struggling with my body image got accepted for an edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, to be published later this year!

The essay was one of those pieces of writing that came out quickly. I thought about it in the airport and during my plane ride to see my writing buddies in Canada last summer, and then when I sat down to write it was like the words and paragraphs were already there. The two writers I was with read and critiqued it, and with some minor edits, I sent it out the door. Lo and Behold, it got picked up! If only all writing/publishing were that easy, huh?

But now that I know it's going to be Out There., I'm freaking out a little. I reread the essay and frankly, I don't remember being so candid! Of course, it's that honesty that makes an essay worth reading. But man, do I feel naked knowing that other people are going to know all the crazy things I've thought about my body over the years.

It's a good lesson--In journalism/marketing writing, you hear all the time, "Know your audience" and "Write for your audience." In creative writing, I think the opposite is true. Don't think of your audience at all. Write for yourself, write your truth.

Otherwise, if you're anything like me, you just might take out the most interesting bits because they don't put you in the best light (or, to stick with the body image theme, they make you look fat). But it's those private bits that make an essay (or poem or story...)good and make people able to relate to it.

Exposing those bits, of course, is a very scary thing. But, as Elanor Roosevelt advised, "Do one thing every day that scares you." Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I'm back...take two

I got back from vacation and then immediately took a sick leave from this blog, and lots of other stuff.

I'm feeling about 40% better these days, and I'm trying to find a balance between:
--Not doing too much as to start another stress/headache cycle
--Doing enough of the things I find fulfilling to not get depressed

Not an easy balance, let me tell you. Add an insanely stressful time at work into the mix and you have...well, let's just say I'm not having the best time of it. But I'm not having the worst, either. So, anyway. I'm hoping to be able to commit to blogging more regularly again.


I've been away from my novel for a few weeks now, and I miss it. I had to write something for my writers' group, which meets Thursday night. I'm not at all happy with the chapter I handed in--I'm kind of embarrassed really. It was really hard to get back into it after such a long absence--my writing muscles had certainly weakened. But at least the deadline got me going.

And I'm committing to try to write a scene a day for the foreseeable future. Just one scene. Just something. Just enough, hopefully, to get the wheels greased again.

I'm doing a lot of meditating these days and let me just say that that is brightest spot to come out of all this pain/stress sh*t. Meditating is such a truly wonderful practice, and yet one I find hard to fit into my life on a very regular basis. These days, it's part of my slowing down activities.

I can't read much on my commute because of the headaches/potential for headaches, so I'm listening to my iPod. Sometimes I put on music and just breath. Sometimes I listen to a guided meditation or a podcast of a talk given at the Insight Meditation Society or Vipassana Metta Foundation--both of which I highly recommend. They offer such insights into life, in a completely accessible, not-religiously-based form.

On the weekends I'm taking some time to read about a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program based out of UMass Amherst. I hope to be able to take a class based on the program in the near future. Reading about it and trying to do it on your own are one thing, having a group to do it with is something else...

Good night for now. Hope to see you again soon! Best Blogger Tips

Saturday, March 27, 2010

a break

I was completely headache free while on vacation, and now the headaches have come back with a vengeance. I'm working to get them figured out, but in the meantime, I'm taking a break from a number of "extras" in my life, and this blog, sadly, is one of them. I'm hopeful that I'll be back in the ole blogosphere soon. Hold down the fort for me while I'm gone! Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I'm back...and so is spring!

I'm back from a (mostly) relaxing, (mostly) wonderful vacation. I swam in the Pacific and under a waterfall, surfed (!), hiked up an active volcano, saw monkeys and sloths, went bird watching, drove an ATV across the Nicoya Peninsula, and drank lots of delicious coffee. Pictures to follow.

While I was away, the clocks turned back, and winter released its grip on New England in an unusually gentle way. It is a very strange feeling to go away in the middle of a long, dark, cold winter and to come back to sunny day AND EVENINGS, crocuses sprouted, and lots of buds on the trees. In some ways, it's an amazing way to say goodbye to winter. In others, its completely discombobulating, like going to a movie when it's light out and re-entering the world when it's dark.

I got two new story ideas while I was away. That leaves me wondering what it is about traveling and being somewhere totally foreign that washes story ideas from the corners of my brain and brings them into the forefront. Do you feel that way, like travel is a good story generator?

In any case, I'm off to Starbucks now to get some of those ideas down on paper. Best Blogger Tips

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hasta luego

I'm heading to Costa Rica for some fun (and yoga and hiking) in the sun.

This is where I'll swim:

Where I'll nap:

Where I'll do yoga:

And whom I hope to run into:

Talk to y'all in a few weeks! Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Seven fascinating (mostly writing-related) articles

I'm going away for 10 days (whoo hoo!), so I thought I'd leave you lovely readers with some articles I suggest you peruse in my absence. If you read any of them, I'd love to hear what you think!

1. Losing your whole town
Imagine that you don't only have to walk away from the house you bought and paid for and lived in and loved. Everyone else around you has to do the same. And the general store, the library, the post office--they all have to pack up and leave, too. All because of an underground coal fire that could have been put out when it first started, almost FIFTY years ago.
That's exactly what's going on in a small town in PA.

There's already some n
on-fiction books on the town's strife, which I plan to read. But I think there might be the seed of a fictional story in there, too. Imagine the family dramas that could be told amongst this heartbreaking, almost unbelievable backdrop.

2. Some Very Funny Dos and Donts of Writing
Thanks to Robyn for pointing me to this awesome and funny article by a debut novelist, Tony DuShane. My two favorite "dos and donts":

Don't: Get in this game if you don't absolutely love literature. Let me take that back, don't get in this game if literature hasn't saved your life somehow. Don't get into this game for the money. Don't get into this game while wondering if you should Tweet your novel online to show your digital forward thinking.

Do: Read and write. Read and write. And write. And write. It's like learning to play guitar and you play "Stairway to Heaven," and after you master that you play other songs.

3. An ode to the London Review of Book's personal ads.
This article is so quirky and funny--just my type! If I ever needed to place a personal ad, I'd totally do it in the London Review of Books. In the meantime, I'll check out the compilation books of the ads.

4. Seth Godin on creativity.
So many great gems in this article on creativity. Here's my favorite. This quote has really stuck with me in the weeks since I first read it:

For me, the single best thing you can do to become more creative is to be wrong more often. Creative people are wrong all the time (look at Apple's long string of failures). The goal is to create a safe place to be wrong, a way to be wrong without destroying yourself. The more wrong I am, the more often, the better I seem to get at being creative.

5. What makes a word sound good?
I found this NY Times article on the sound of words fascinating. I'm guessing the poets out there will particularly like it. Again, a favorite quote from it:
"Poetry, in fact, is two quite distinct things,” H. L. Mencken wrote in a 1920 magazine column. “It may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single word 'cellar-door' is musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.”

6. On Rejection.
I thought this Glimmer Train essay on rejection started a bit slow, but man was I glad I stuck with it when I got to the end:

The odds of winning the Nobel or becoming a perennial bestseller are astronomical. So why do we keep putting our heads on the chopping block when we can clearly see the worn dull blade dangling by a thread above? We don't do this in other facets of our lives, in which we are far more pragmatic and make decisions based on evidence. We don't put ourselves at risk when we know that odds are we are going to get hurt.

So why do we do it?

Because we are in love, and looking for those with whom we can share that love.

Which is why rejection, particularly in your love life, is good training for being a writer. Because your work, if it's true, is you—the culmination and symbol of your heart, your passion, your hopes and dreams. Your work is everything you want and need to make things right in the world—it's what sets you apart from the rest, what makes you believe that all the devotion, dedication, and the grueling brutal daily grind to produce actually means something.

7. The second book from the author of the Time Traveler's Wife!
Anyone who loved the Time Traveler's Wife will probably be interested in this interview with author Audrey Niffenegger about her new book. Best Blogger Tips

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Confession Tuesday: The week-before-vacation edition

I leave on Saturday for Costa Rica! Picture a week of yoga on the beach, followed by a few days of hiking in the rain forest. Ahhhh.

In spirit of prepping for the trip, here are some vacation-themed confessions:

I confess that I planned to lose 8 pounds before the vacation, and only managed to lose 2.

I confess that this is probably going to bother me the first time I put on my bathing suit, though I wish it wouldn't.

I confess that I'm bracing myself for my husband's culture shock--in the past he hasn't been the best at adjusting quickly and easily to foreign countries, though after a day or two he's fine.

I confess that I know these are awesome "problems" to have.

I confess that before going away, I like the house to be clean and my to-do lists to be as completed as they can be. My mom used to clean the house before we went away, and I thought she was crazy. Now I understand the peace of mind it brings, both before you go and after you come back.

I confess it bothers me that my to-do lists never get completely done, though I'm sure I would be sad if I had nothing I wanted to get done. Best Blogger Tips

Monday, March 01, 2010

Recent Reads: February Edition

Like the month itself, this list of books read in February is a shorty. But quantity is definitely in inverse proportion to quality here--the four books I read/listened to this month were all good ones.

Three Bags Full by Leonnie Swann
Four-and-a-half stars
This sheep detective story, as it is called in the book's subtitle, is delightful and addictive. It's told from the point of view of a flock of sheep whose shepherd has been murdered. Swann does a great job of making each sheep a unique character, and of telling things from the sheeps' perspective. I didn't catch a single instance of her writing like a human instead of a sheep. And much like a book told from the point of view of a child, the sheep witness things that they don't understand, but that the reader does, making for an interesting, layered story.

The Perks of Being a Wall Flower by Stephen Chbosky
Three-and-a-half stars

This coming of age story reminded me and others in my book group of Catcher in the Rye--especially in that I got a lot more out of reading each book as an adult than I would have as a teen. The story is told through a series of letters that a troubled teen writes to an anonymous friend. It's a very quick read--I read most of it in one night (the night before my book club, of course!)--and one I would recommend.

The Reserve by Russell Bank*
Four-and-a-half stars

I am a big fan of Russell Bank, and this story was well done. The story is complex--it's told from multiple points of view, so it's about many characters and many stories--and a little hard to sum up. The themes include love, marriage, class, family, and what it means to be insane. What impressed me most was how deftly he switched points of view. My writers' group has been discussing the subject of how hard it is to write from an omniscient point of view, and this is a book I will turn to as a "how to" guide if I ever decide to go that route with a story or novel.

In the Time of Butterflies*
by Julia Alvarez
Four-and-a-half stars

This is one of those books that weaves fact and fiction to give readers a good sense of what it was like to live during a particular time in history. In this case, the story takes place during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republica in 1960. It tells the story of four sisters--three of whom get involved in the revolution against Trujillo, and die because of their involvement. The fourth sister lives to tell their story. The book also deals with themes of women's roles in the revolution, marriage, family, and sisterhood.
*I listened to this as an audio book Best Blogger Tips

Monday, February 22, 2010

Getting out of the slushpile...and into print!

It took me a long, long time to get my first story published. I spent a semester during my MFA program writing and editing the first draft. Then I probably tweaked it for another month or two. Then I spent a year and a half sending it out to 21 different journals. It got rejected by 17 of them, and then was accepted by two different places right around the same time. (The remaining journals I wrote to and rescinded the submission.)

So when I came across this article in Writers' Digest on getting out of the slush pile, I thought I would write a post listing a few of the minor things I did in between the time I first sent the story out, and when it finally got picked up. I think these little tweaks made a world of difference.
(Note: I read about the WD article on the Practicing Writing Blog)

1- When I got the first five rejections or so, I sent the story to some writer friends who kindly gave me feedback. They all agreed that it was ready to be submitted--but two of them questioned one particular part of the story.
That sent a red flag to me that something wasn't working in that area. I revised it.

2- After rejection 10 or so, I printed out the story and read it over from start to finish--something I hadn't done in months at that point. I found a few typos (egads!) and reworked a few parts that seemed clunky.

3- Around that time, I reworked the red-flagged area from item #1 yet again.

4- Right before I sent out this last batch of submissions, I tweaked the opening in a way that I think made a big difference.

The opening line went from:
On her first day in Paris, Chloe buys six postcards.

On her first day in Paris, Chloe writes a postcard to her dead husband.

The latter is much more engaging, no? It leaves you wondering, What happened to Chloe's husband? Is she crazy? The former might leave you wondering, Who cares?

The moral
* Work on your story until you really truly believe it is done.
* Have friends read it and comment on it (other writers are great for this, but I also have non-writer friends read my stuff and their comments are often just as helpful)
* If your story gets rejected a number of times, take a look at it with fresh eyes and see if there are parts where your interest flags, where the writing seems clunky, that could be cut, or that need clarification. Pay particular attention to the beginning, since that's what the editor will see first.
* Don't give up hope! Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Some February crafts

I got a lot of crafting done this month. Not sure if that's because the cold weather kept me inside, or if my headaches kept me away from books and my computer, or if I was just in a craft mood. In any case....
I didn't want to throw away the Christmas cards I was taking down at the end of January, so I decided to recycle them into Valentine's decorations. I cut them into hearts, and then sewed a thread through them so they would hang in a line and dangle. Hanging them in front of the windows by my front door meant that people outside and inside could enjoy them.

(Don't mind the bad photo--the way the house is set up doesn't allow for a good angle of the windows.)

I didn't just use Christmas cards--I also used images from magazines. I ended up with many more heart cutouts than I did window space, so I also made a mobile--something I had been wanting to make for a while now, ever since I noticed how soothing I found the slow movements of a modern art mobile that hung in my dentist's office (and what a good place to find something soothing, no?)

As you can see, I put images on one side and relavent or just amusing (to me, anyway) words from magazine articles (mostly a very iteresting New Yorker piece on how scent informs memory).

I had so much fun making it (which took a lot of trial and error in terms of finding the right materials to be sturdy enough to support the structure, but fluid enough to allow for movement)that I'm going to make another using birds instead of hearts--to hang to celebrate spring (whenever that comes around!).

Post-mobile, I had yet MORE hearts, so I hung them in the archway that separates my living room from the kitchen/dining area:

I'll also have some knitting photos to post soon... What crafty things have you been up to this month? Best Blogger Tips

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Confession Tuesday: The Simultaneous Submission Edition

I confess: In the past, I have submitted pieces simultaneously to journals even if they didn't allow simultaneous submissions. I figured: With all the rejections I have gotten, what are the chances that one of my stories would be accepted by two journals at the same time?

I confess: THIS JUST HAPPENED! Luckily, the second journal that accepted it was one that allowed simultaneous submissions, so the weirdness of having to reject their acceptance was somewhat dampened. I also felt good about the fact that I did email that second journal as soon as I found out that the New Plains Review accepted my story. My guess is that the editor didn't have a chance to go through all the "general inbox" emails before emailing authors whose work he accepted.

I confess: I will never flout simultaneous submission rules again.

I confess: Once the anxiety I am feeling over having to reject the acceptance and probably piss off the editor of the second journal subsides, I will probably be all aglow for weeks at the idea that TWO journals wanted the story that SEVENTEEN rejected.

I confess: The idea of pissing someone off (in general, not in this case alone) causes me way more anxiety than it should.

I confess: Having my story accepted makes me feel like a "real" writer, whatever that means.

I confess: I wish I didn't need this kind of outside validation but, alas, I do. Best Blogger Tips

How to Survive February in New England

T.S. Eliot got a lot right, but he got one thing wrong: February is the cruelest month, at least here in New England, according to this Writerbug. Though it is so short, it feels so long. And so dark. And so cold. (Which reminds me of that lovely Shakespeare quote: "Though he is small, he is but fierce.")

I'm not the only one who feels this way about February.

My plan to conquer February is a little different than Soule Mama's, though. It does entail lots of knitting and being outside, but the main component is movies! I plan to see all of the Best Picture nominations this month.

And the nominees are:

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

I've seen Avatar (eh), Inglourious Basterds (awesome), A Serious Man (very awesome), and Up (awesome). I plan to see another one or two movies this weekend, and I have The Hurt Locker out from Netflix.
That leaves me enough movies to get me through the last of this long short month. Best Blogger Tips

Friday, February 12, 2010 me!

After most "victories," Brian very sweetly gets me one of these helium balloons. This week, I got one to celebrate my most exciting victory yet--one of my short stories, Cartes Postales, will be published in the Spring Issue of The New Plains Review!

It's been a little over a week since I've heard the news (I didn't want to share until I got in touch with the editors of the other journals that were considering the story), but I still get giddy when I talk (write) about it!

Maybe that's the benefit of having Cartes rejected 17 times--yes, I counted. Now this victory is all the more sweet for being so hard won.

Another twist: of the four journals from which I had to rescind my submission, three wrote back to say the story was being seriously considered for publication and I should send other work.
Of course I was very happy to hear this--and it makes me wonder if Cartes got close to publication at any of the 17 journals that rejected it. Man, that would have been nice to know! It would've taken the sting out of those rejections just a wee bit....

But anyway, I am so so so so happy about this. It's so gratifying to know that my instinct that told me this story was ready was correct, despite all those rejections. And it's a good reminder to all of you out there who might be on rejection #16....Keep sending your stuff out! After a series of rejections, you might want to look at the story again and tweak it as you see fit (I did that a few times). But most of all, keep sending it out. All it takes is one! And, of course, keep writing.

My very exciting plans for this Friday evening involve doing just that. Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Some pictures, on this snowy Wednesday

So far the snow in these parts (South of Boston) is way lighter than expected. But who knows what's to come....

Since I got out of work early in anticipation of the snow, I'm finally getting around to putting up some pictures I've been meaning to post.

Remember I mentioned I took myself on an artist's date and hit my favorite thrift store in Boston?

Here are just a few of my finds. I'll post more sporadically as the urge strikes.
I got all of these items at Boomerangs, probably all for under $10 total, though I don't remember exactly. I think they look quite lovely grouped on top of our piano.

I also bought this vase:

And then I needed to fill it, so I made some pom-pom flowers. Fun and easy!

I couldn't help myself from making more pom-pom flowers, and putting them on the branches that sit in this awesome vase I got when my Oma (German for grandmother) passed away. It's funny because the vase did not fit in with the rest of my Oma's house, and yet I had loved it from when I was a little girl. Now it doesn't really fit in with my decor either, but I still love it.

And I think the whole pom-pom flower look works with it, if I do say so myself!
Best Blogger Tips

Friday, February 05, 2010

Need some inspiration?

I love quotes from writers on writing. I find them inspiring. So I was quite pleased when I came across this post from the No Credentials Necessary blog.

My favorite of her list of quotes:
The best advice on writing I’ve ever received: Finish.” – Peter Mayle

So simple, yet so difficult! Best Blogger Tips

Recent Reads: January Edition

I'm starting a new feature on this ole blog, a list of books I've read in the last month (and commentary on what I thought of them).

I hope this feature serves multiple purposes:
1- Selfishly, I'd like a place to keep track of my reading.
2- I love learning about books and articles from people I trust, so I hope to provide my readers with this service.

Next month, I hope to add a list of any particularly good articles I read, along with commentary on what I thought of those, too.

Here goes!

Books read last month

Reviewed on a scale of 1-5 stars, listed from worst to best. (Saving the best for last and all that.)

Santa Fe Dead by Stewart Woods
1.5 stars

Bought this as an airplane read....The plot was good enough that I finished the book, but I won't be recommending this author anytime soon. The writing was pretty bad.

No Good Deeds by Laura Lipman*
3.5 stars

This murder mystery set in Baltimore kept my interest and, when I was away from the book, I kept thinking about the characters and the plot--always a good sign. In terms of craft, I would like to go back to this book (and others by Lipman) to look at how well she creates a sense of place. I don't know much about Baltimore, but she described the city in a way that was not confusing for an outsider and, it seemed to me, wouldn't be boring or redundant for someone who knew it well.

*Note: I listened to an audio version of this book

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
4 stars

I got interested in this book, which fictionalizes a long-term affair that Frank Lloyd Wright had with one of his clients, after visiting the architect's house in Scottsdale, AZ, in December.

The book is told from the perspective of the woman, Mamah. It was well done--until the end. I won't spoil it for people who want to read the book, but I was totally shocked in the end. I like books that surprise me, but whose endings, when I look back on the book as a whole, seem as inevitable as they were surprising. This was just surprising.

That said, I would still recommend the book for its lovely architecture and art descriptions, and the information about the women's movement in the early 1900s, as well as the illumination of the topic of making hard choices in life (Mamah left her own family, including two young children, to take up with Wright because she felt it was what she needed to do, as a person.)

Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff*
5 stars

I loved these stories. They embody everything I hope to have in my own work--characters who are alive, interesting plots, and subtle but completely comprehensible endings. In fact, I liked the book (which I got from the library) so much that I ordered myself a copy, so I can reread it, study it, and underline to my heart's content. Hopefully I'll figure out just how Ms. Groff works her magic.

*Note: I listened to an audio version of this book Best Blogger Tips

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Confession Tuesday

January over at PoetMom started Confession Tuesday a while back. I follow her and others' confessions, but I've never confessed myself. Here goes!

I confess that when I thought about writing this post, all I could think of was my Catholic upbringing: It's been about 15 years since my last (priest-witnessed) confession.

I confess that now I'm wondering what it is I confessed in that confession, which is probably to be my last in a Catholic Church.

I confess that I've started to attend the Unitarian Church near my house and I love it. Aside from the welcoming nature of the congregation, and the social justice component of Unitarianism, what I most love is the weekly tradition they call "Sharing of Joys and Sorrows." People get up and share something they are happy about, or concerned about, and then light a candle. At the end, the leader of the service lights a candle for "all the joys and sorrows unspoken, but that are in our hearts."

I confess that I've never shared a joy or sorrow for fear that I would cry while I was up there.

I confess I cry a lot. Movies, TV shows, books, life in general...all fodder for tears for me.

I confess that ever since attending PoetMom's and Erin Dionne's book parties recently, I have been daydreaming about my own book party, which I hope to have occasion to throw one day in the relatively near future. More on that in another post.

I confess I am writing this post during work hours and must get back to my job! Best Blogger Tips

Friday, January 29, 2010


I'm having a bit of Me Time tomorrow (or an Artists' Date, if you are a Julia Cameron Follower). One of my stops will be one of my favorite Boston thrift stores, which I used to go to at least once a week, and which I miss dearly now that I live outside of the city. (Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain, for those of you locals who are wondering.)

I'm going to be on the lookout for some candlesticks for this cool project, a DIY Ribbon Organizer made out of old candlesticks.

And I want to look for some sweaters that I can felt for a tote bag I want to make.

Any other suggestions for cool projects/materials I should be on the lookout for? Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Slow down....whether you like it or not!

I've been trying to be all philosophical about the crazy migraines I've been getting just about everyday. (Quick aside, I'm seeing lots of doctors and alternative practitioners, so no need to worry about my not getting the care I need.) I've been trying to think of them the way I think of Rufus, my insanely cute though very annoying puppy--that they will teach me patience, and to slow down.

But the thing is, I don't want to slow down. And slowing down because you're in pain and lack energy is not enjoyable in the way that slowing down because you want to take some time off to just veg is. I get frustrated when I look at the sweater I want to get back to knitting. Or when I look at the cut outs that line my dining room table just waiting to be put onto the mobile I am creating. Or when I think about the many blog posts I've half-written in my head. And don't get me started about my poor, abandoned journal. Or the stack of books collecting dust on my nightstand. Thinking about them makes me want to cry.

I know, I know. I need to rest as much as I need to. All these projects will be there, waiting for me when I get better. That's what I would tell a friend if she were in my shoes. But I didn't appreciate before this experience how frustrating it is not to be able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. And none of the advice I would give my friend/my self acknowledges that fact.

So, that's where I am, moving at a frustratingly slow pace and hating every minute of it. So as not to end on a complete downer, here's a pic of that insanely cute dog who is teaching me to be patient, and who is a much kinder teacher than head pain. (He's the gray one, Chloe is the black lab)

Best Blogger Tips

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random ramblings

I just read an interesting, random list on the Juniper Moon Farm blog featuring 5 things readers didn't know about Susan the Shepherdess. It inspired me to make my own random list. And away we go...

Five things you probably don't know about me

1. I love bargain shopping--I can't remember the last time I paid full price for a piece of clothing. My first love is thrift stores (where the thrill of the find is heightened--they're like little treasure hunts!), but I also hit up the sales rack.

2. That said, I don't scrimp on shoes. I tend to have a few, sturdy pairs of shoes that I wear and wear and wear, so I want those to be well made and comfortable. I've found that often means expensive. But since they last me years and years, I'm OK with that. (And I have a few cute, cheap shoes to mix things up a bit.)

3. While we're on the subject of money, I've never had credit card debt (knock on wood--I've been blessed with jobs that offer health insurance; I know many people have to go into debt if they don't have insurance). My dad instilled in me the importance of only buying what you can afford, and that lesson stuck.

4. And speaking of health... I'm much more comfortable with alternative medicines like acupuncture than I am with popping pills (not exactly the easiest attitude to live by now that daily migraine headaches have been striking for the last few weeks. Pain meds are now my friend).

5. In the last two to three years, I've really come to enjoy winter. I can account for this shift in attitude with five things:

a-This Landsend coat, which really could keep you warm on a tundra.
Here's a shot of me in my coat, and my good friend Kathy in a similar one:

b- These boots (Sorel Snow Bird Zip)

Warm feet are the key to feeling warm, and these things are so well made, you can stand with your feet in a snowdrift for hours (it seems, I haven't actually tried it for that long!) without feeling a thing. (My one complaint is that the zipper slides down a lot, but I still love the boots.)

c- Living in a house I love with two fire places. I spend a lot of time indoors in the winter, and loving my home has made that time a retreat, instead of a burden.

d- Instead of thinking of winter as one, icy, five-month block, I notice the variations in temperature and light from day to day. Yes, winter lasts a long time here, but there are plenty of pleasantly chilly days (like today--about 40 and sunny) mixed in with the bitterly cold ones.

e- I get outside for a walk at least once a week. Despite loving to sit by the fire and read/write/knit, I also need some outside time. And thanks to items a and b on this list, I can get out there without being too miserable. Best Blogger Tips

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Come join me at the Boston Center for Adult Ed!

I'm teaching this class this weekend at the BCAE, and really looking forward to it! Please pass this info on to anyone you know in the area who might be interested.

Writer's Weekend Workshop

Have you always wanted to write, but have a hard time getting started? Or have you been writing but currently feel stuck? Or do you just want to spend a Saturday writing with others? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this class is for you. We will begin with writing exercises to get inspired and to learn about different aspects of the craft of writing, such as characterization, setting scenes, and plot. As a group, we will discuss the writing that comes out of the exercises. If students want, they can bring copies of a two or three page writing excerpt that they want workshopped. This class will mostly address fiction writers, but essayists, memoirists, and creative non-fiction writers are welcome to attend.

Saturday, 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM;
2 sessions starting January 23, 2010, ending January 30, 2010
Tuition: $50.00 ($40.00 for BCAE members) Best Blogger Tips

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On a happier note....

I'm not sure why, but I've been daydreaming about planning a birthday party. My birthday is in late June, mind you. And I don't normally even have a party.
But after my last depressing post, I thought I'd post my birthday party wishes. Much nicer than my end of life wishes, no?

I want this cake, as I am an avid (obsessive?) scrabble player:

I would like this shirt as a present, to represent one of my other obsesssions, knitting:

I might ask my guests to come dressed as a favorite literary character, as Kelli of Book of Kells did.

And I would wear a tiara and feather boa All Day Long.

[Edited to add] I forgot about music!! There would be tons of music ala the brother of a friend of mine who is a DJ, and LOTS of dancing. Our living room is rather large and would make an awesome dance space. Those looking for a more mellow time would be hanging outside, under the luminary-lit backyard.

Want to come? Best Blogger Tips

Death and writing

I've been quiet this week (blog-wise and in general). Feeling a little overwhelmed by emotion, between the terrible sadness in Haiti, and, on a more personal level, the sadness in my husband's family as they grieve for the death of his beloved grandfather and worry about the health of some other family members.

But, I can link the depressing topic of death with writing! PoetMom posted an interesting question recently regarding what, if any, provisions her readers-who-are-writers have taken to ensure their wishes are followed regarding the publication (or not) of journals or works in progress.

Making a will is on my list of things to get done this year, and I will make a provision for my writing journals and files. Assuming Brian out lives me, I'll leave decisions about what to do with everything up to him, and ask that he consult my writing friends about anything he has questions about. I would hope that he would work to publish the things that I was working to publish at the time of my death.

If we die together or he dies first, then I will have one of my MFA friends be put in charge of making those decisions. (I need to ask her first, obviously!)

The only real question in my mind is what to do with those books and books filled with morning pages. In some ways, they are utterly private and certainly are not written with the intention of ever being read. On the other hand, if I'm dead, I'm not sure my privacy is really relevant, and maybe my survivors would find comfort in reading my day to day musings. On the other other hand, I would hate for something I wrote in a private journal to be misinterpreted or cause pain to a loved one.

What are your thoughts on what you'd want done with your writing (computer files, journals, etc.) posthumously? Best Blogger Tips

Friday, January 08, 2010

A short one

This will be a short post because I have a killer headache. I've been plagued with these damn things for about a month now (and off and on throughout my life, but never like this!).

But I wanted to point readers over to the blog of the beautiful and talented Erin Dionne. Her second YA novel was just published (whoo-HOO!!), and to celebrate, her editor at Dial books gave a two-part interview on Erin's blog. It's very informative for writers of all genres. Click here for part one, and here for part two.

And a big congrats to Erin!

Check back soon for posts on:
* How I untangled a knotty problem in my novel
* One of my goals for 2010: Allowing myself to feel like a legitimate writer.
* Some artsy movies that I've recently watched and recommend. Best Blogger Tips

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Christmas in the Dessert

One of the things I love about traveling is that I take the time to take photos. I've always loved photography, but the hobby has fallen by the wayside a bit as I am trying to devote my creative energies to writing. But vacations are a good excuse to get back to this craft. Here are some of my favorite images from the trip.

We spent most of our time in Scottsdale, where my brother lives.

Then we took a short jaunt up to the red, red mountains of Sedona, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

In Scottsdale, two of my favorite attractions we visited were the Scottsdale Botanical Gardens and Frank Lloyd Wright's house, Talesin West. The Gardens had a luminary celebration going on, so we got to tour through the various cacti displays lit by 7,000 candles. And around every corner, there was a different kind of band playing. Our walk was serendaded by carolers, bell ringers, mariachis, salsa, jazz singers, and many more.

The tour of Wright's house was really neat. The guide talked all about his processes in creating architecture, and the principles he worked by. He sounded like quite the character--his ego probably couldn't fit into any of his houses, according to the asides of the guide. It's prompted me to read two historical novels based on Frank's life, Loving Frank and The Women. I'll let you know what I think when I'm done.

Best Blogger Tips

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year

I woke up this morning with a feeling of beginning anew, in a way that I don't normally experience on January 1. Maybe it's the fact that this is not only the start of a new year, but a new decade. Or maybe it was the fresh coating of snow that covered the world outside my window. Whatever the reason, I am relishing it.

I plan to spend the day writing, casting on this sweater(link only available to members), which I'm making for myself (!), catching up on the emails I got behind on while away in Arizona for Christmas (pics to come), and maybe watching a movie (or napping while a movie plays in the background....).

Oh, and I promised myself I'd start doing this exercise DVD I bought myself for Christmas--Jillian Michael's 30 Day Shred. I'm not resolving to lose weight or get in better shape this new year. I will not be one of those people who makes a weight loss resolution come January 1. But call it what you will, that workout is on my list of January 1 things to do.

Have a great New Year's Day, all! Best Blogger Tips