Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why I Write

Recently, a friend of mine asked me why I write. "It's what I do," I said and laughed.

Truth: I didn't know what to say. I'd never really asked myself the question. So why do I write? The easy answer is I don't really have a choice. The words pop into my head and pile up like rush hour traffic. I can't not put them to paper.

I wonder if anyone ever asked Van Gogh why he painted, or Gershwin why he composed, or Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev why they danced. Of course, I would never compare myself to artists of their caliber, but you get the point.

To me, writing is a musical endeavor, of sorts. Prose should sing. It should never be choppy or roll off the tongue in the literary equivalent of three-round bursts. In George Orwell's famous essay, "Why I Write", he says, "When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words".   I think it is this constant quest for beautiful words which inspires me and feeds my search for a well-written turn of phrase.

But is that all there is to writing? To reading? Is a lovely compilation of words the chief aim of all  my literary endeavors? Let's hope not. Channelling Simon Cowell, if that were the case, all books would be nothing but a self-indulgent pile of rubbish. (Though let's face it, there are plenty of books out there which qualify.) We can't overlook the storytelling aspect of writing.

Another friend of mine recently reminded me of the importance of being swept along the tide of an engaging story. This has led to some rather heated discussions regarding plot-driven versus character-driven fiction. Right or wrong, my conclusion (according to my personal writing/reading style and tastes) determines that a book must have both to hook me. The characters must be engaging, but I must also be pulled into the plot for the book to be a success.

How does this translate into writing? Well, either it does or it doesn't. There is no magic formula for creating this marriage of strong characterization and interesting plot. I begin with a spark of an idea, dissect each character from the protagonist down to the most minor secondary character, mix them up with a bucket of beautiful words, and voila! there's your book. Does it always work? Well, you'll have to be the judge of that . . .


Friday, January 27, 2012

Favorite Reads Fall and Summer 2011

I had a great reading year and I just have to share some of the highlights!

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

What I loved: The plot builds so slowly that I might not have finished this book if I hadn’t known the premise from reviews. The central characters' magic skills are pitted against each other in a dark contest for survival and the story question of who will win and how their relationship will play out kept me turning pages. Many devices, including ongoing color symbolism, add dimension to the conflict. The outcome is skillfully and creatively spun and the entire arc was completely satisfying.

Not so much: Distracting all-over-the-place time jumps from chapter to chapter.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

What I loved: The masterful weaving of a complex mystery centering on an assassin who's motivated by justice and a writer who reluctantly ghost writes a contest entry, inadvertantly disturbing the "Little People". This woman and man met years earlier when they formed a permanent bond but lost contact, and now the events surrounding the mystery cause them to search for one another. The accessible fantasy element provides overarching questions in the alternate 1984 setting. Even the 925 page length was enjoyable due to the great pacing. It does have it's share of raw material, but most of it's easy to navigate around, if it proves bothersome.
I'm tickled sequels are written & assume they'll be available in English at some point.

Not so much: An event that exceeds anything built into the story world and, then, a too-easy intuitiveness regarding the event is the only plot movement in the last quarter.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

What I loved: I didn’t expect to like this book, but it was the most riveting character-based fiction I’ve read in awhile. Reminiscent of Gatsby in tone (although this book is captivating), focuses on a society guy and a working girl in pre-WWII NYC. The deeper themes gave a lot of resonance. The atmosphere, characterization, pacing, conflict, were about flawless.

Not so much: The title—didn’t do this book justice.

The Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

What I loved: The texture--multiple rich settings (it opens in a library, for goodness sake), first-person-history (even of wine!), ancient manuscripts to name a few--the great conflict between otherworldly creatures, and the evolving relationship between a 1500 year-old vampire and a witch reluctant to use her powers due to her parents' violent death. I wasn't sure if the fantasy element would be too dark for my taste, so I listened to the audio, masterfully narrated by Jennifer Ikeda, and the execution of the French accents, especially, added another dimension. This is a narrative to savor! I can't wait for the sequel in July 2012 and I'm really hoping the movie that's in the works will happen.

Not so much: Beats me!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quit Writing

        So, when does one quit writing?
        Steven King says something like, when you have 600 rejections for any one piece, maybe you should think about another line of work, like wastewater treatment certification. I disagree. If you are a writer, you write. Period.

        You never quit.

        Consider the case of Helen Hooven Santmyer. Heard of her? I didn’t think so. She wrote a big, thick novel quite a few years ago that was published when she was 88. It took her 50 years to write. It was a hit, a best-seller, a Book of the Month Club Main Selection. She died three years later, but she worked on that book for five decades, FIVE DECADES, before it was published. It was called “. . . And Ladies of the Club.” Santmyer had written three books before, all published but didn’t sell, all immediately forgotten and committed to the “So what?” corner of history’s literary dustbin.

        Peter S. Beagle wrote A Fine and Private Place and it was published and became a best seller and is still selling copies today. I know that for sure because I’m teaching it in one of my college classes. Oh, and Beagle was 19 when he wrote that novel. He is now 70 years old with many best-sellers in the fantasy genre. Still writing, too.

        So, if you are a writer, you write. You don’t quit. You can take a break, you can back away for a while, you can try another genre if you want to.

        What do you do when you pick up another stack of rejections at the mailbox and feel like eating as much junk food and gin as you can?

        You write some more. Maybe you’re better with a bloated belly and a headache.

        There’s a cartoon I’ll never forget, even if I no longer have it. A scruffy man in a wifebeater undershirt is sitting at a table with a typewriter on it. He’s on the back porch and there are about fifteen dogs all over the place, all kinds. He has a blank look on his face. A woman, also scruffy, is standing nearby and she’s saying, “Write about dogs.”


Monday, January 23, 2012

Critical Thinking

If reading is a collective action, writing is a solitary art. There is no one with which an author can share responsibility or blame for the words they put to paper. Just as it is only their soul laid bare to anyone who might potentially pick up their novel and read it. The pain and the pleasure of creation begins and ends with them.

But at some point, an artist must declare their brainchild finished and prepare to disseminate it to the wider world. To do so, they must first rely upon the opinions of their peers to give them an accurate, although subjective, view of their manuscript. The author must let go and open up to criticism.

For many years, I wrote solo. Every word groaned under the weight of its own self importance. I revised. I edited until my soul bled. Then, finally, I typed the words THE END, and broke out in a cold sweat. If I was truly serious about publishing my novel, it was time to find someone to critique my work.

Three years ago this month, I joined the Novelists critique group (out of which this blog was born), and my writing was transformed. Sure, my novel became a marketable piece of fiction--that was my goal, after all--but I count the changes to my style, voice, and level of confidence as the most valuable gifts this group of talented writers imparted.

Today, when I compose a scene, I hear their voices reminding me to stay tight in my character's point of view, to watch wordy dialogue beats, and to slash every unnecessary word. I am reminded of how lucky I am to have found this group and just how amazing they are.

Every writer is different, of course. There are plenty of successful novelists out there who choose to forgo the critical route. I imagine there are also critique groups who have steered potential writers away from a marketable manuscript. As for me, I count my group as a bit of serendipity. Now it is my turn to pay it forward.

How about you?

I strongly encourage all writers to find a critique partner or group. This can be done locally, through a professional group or organization such as your local chapter of Romance Writers of America, Daughters In Crime, or Mystery Writers of America, or via the Internet (there are many online critique groups out there that might fit your needs). Prepare to put your self out there. You won't regret it.

Good Luck and Happy Writing,

Friday, January 20, 2012

Looking Ahead: Fiction Early 2012

I am drawn to fiction with a strong character arc, but I've tried to include a variety of genres. There's lots of sources for full summaries, so there's no need for me to reinvent that wheel here.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey Harper: HarperCollins, Jan 2012-464p
A homage to Jane Erye set in Scotland & Iceland in the 1950s & 1960s.

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson Grand Central, Jan 2012-288p
This author has an authentic southern voice. A popular/commercial mystery, bound to have a character thread, judging from the author's other work.

Dead Low Tide by Bret Lott Random, Jan 2012-256p
Southern mystery by a commercial literary author.

A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore Holt, Feb 2012-400p paperback
An English upscale mystery similar to Kate Morton. (My bookclub loved this kind of fiction.)

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay St. Martin’s, Feb 2012-288p
A historical set in 1860s Paris about a woman taking a stand against reconstruction. Main theme is family history, so it looks to be a lighter read than Sarah's Key.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston Norton, Feb 2012-320p
Popular/Commercial Fiction about a woman dumpming her metaphorical baggage and finding a comfort zone in air travel.

I'll be posting on a book in about a month, so it'd be great if some of you would chime in on your book choices.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"I want."

From the time I left my driveway this morning until I was nearly at work, I wanted.  I wanted a different song on the radio.  I wanted more coffee and I wanted more bagel.  I wanted a particular client to call me back when I got to the office.  As I slowly became aware of the pattern of my thoughts, I realized that it was a constant stream of motivations driven by the words, "I want..."

How does a good author portray to the reader what it is that a character wants?  There are the major motivations, for sure.  A reader wants to see the character's need for acceptance, the desire to be successful, or even the carnal want for food or sex.  But does the writer also need to portray the subtle stream of motivations that can occupy a character's thoughts?  How does an author build the character so that the reader can connect the dots without reading verbatim the stream of consciousness related to these minor motivations?

Read a favorite passage again.  Can you fill in the character's mental tracks using the information that the author gave you?  This is a writing skill that makes one character more engaging or believable than another.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Open-minded Reading

To say that my reading tastes are eclectic might be the understatement of 2012. My week began with  Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry (creepy good book, by the way), took a turn through Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (for the 900th time), and ended up in a Regency-era vampire romance by Colleen Gleason. For completely different reasons, I enjoyed them all. I was challenged and entertained.

And that brings up an interesting subject: literary snobbery. You know what I'm talking about. There are those who wouldn't dream of stooping low enough to read commercial fiction, much less romance, or fantasy, or sci fi, or young adult, or fill in the blank. The truth as I see it, is good, solid writing can be found in any genre of fiction, just as the opposite is also true.

That is my first criteria for what constitutes a good book. It must be well written. Sure the plot doesn't hurt. It certainly makes it more entertaining. But if the dialogue is wooden and unnatural, the text riddled with cliche, or it contains pages of background information when we'd rather follow the breadcrumbs, then, at least in my mind, it can't be classified as a good book. It tells me the writer was rushed or maybe even a little lazy. So maybe I'm a bit of a book snob, too. How about you?

Are you a book snob? Have you fallen victim to literary snobbery? Has your writing?

I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Great Openings

The spicy-sweet fragrance of a florist's doorway, the first poignant notes of John Lennon's Imagine, and the timeless lines beginning a Dickens novel invite us to engage fully in an experience. Hopefully, this blog will pull you into our corner of the literary world.

All the aspiring authors here have written and revised the first sentences and paragraphs of our projects more than once. Openings are one of the greatest challenges to writers everywhere, especially in this day and age of sound bites and tweets. Months or years of work on a project can be rejected in the skim of a paragraph by readers, literary agents, and editors alike.

The engaging opening of Charles Frazier's Nightwoods comes to mind. Before turning the first page the reader knows the care of two troubled children has been thrust on a woman living in an old Lodge. The dilemna the woman faces is apparent by the descriptions of the children's abnormal behavior, immediately posing numerous story questions. The urgency of finding answers to the questions causes the reader to turn the next page and more complications induce the reader to continue reading--or not.

We would love to engage our cyber-audience in conversations. So let us know of books that immediately pulled you in to the story.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year and Welcome!

Each new year brings with it a sense of renewed committment and a resurgence of hope. For writers, it is often all the motivation we need to dust off that old manuscript we couldn't quite perfect, or open up a new file and follow through with the ideas circling our brains. For me personally, the new year means my children are heading back to school which will finally give me time to write again.

As readers, the new year signals a bit of down time after the rush of holiday releases. It means working a little harder to find something to read, taking the time to explore new authors and different genres we wouldn't normally choose.

2012 marks a milestone for our group of aspiring authors with the creation of this new blog. Well said. Well read. is committed to bringing writers and readers together by sharing both sides of the coin. We hope you will check in with us over the coming months and watch how we bloom.