Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Advice from and for writers

At a meeting of the California Writer’s Club last Saturday I heard Susan Straight speak and read from her latest novel, A MILLION NIGHTENGALES. Susan has long been one of my favorite authors, whose authentic life in Riverside, California makes her writing sing like a New York diva.

Susan voiced something I have internalized since I began writing fiction seriously, but have never heard from other writers: She says she's constantly working on her novel--even when she's not sitting in front of the work, she's ruminating over characters, setting, conflicts. Susan is one of the few authors I know who write complete novels longhand. Her method of choice are yellow legal pads, which she then transfers the work to her computer. Susan teaches creative writing at the university where my daughter is an English major, considering a minor in creative writing. If she takes one of Susan's classes, I'm going to crawl into her backpack and listen through the zipper.

Tonight I'm going to hear Anne Lamott speak and read from her new collection of essays, Grace (Eventually). I've heard Anne before and she speaks just like she writes--from the hip and heart. Stay tuned.

Before Susan's talk at the CWC meeting on Saturday, we were given an exercise to write advice to ourselves that we wish we would’ve received early in our writing career. Here’s what I wrote:
Read good books. Reading is the most important element of writing. Reading opens the door to worlds outside your own, will expose you to foreign cultures and diverse lifestyles, and will reveal the thread of humanity that we all share. Only through discovering the outer world can you hope to share your inner world.

Experience life. Plan for your future, but live in the moment. Observe people and places around you; participate in what is going on around you. Remember how you felt when you reached important milestones.

Discover what you like reading best. Read the kind of books you want to write. Study how they’re written: setting, characters, motivation, plot, conflict, story arc, pace, layers, subtext, theme.

Devote yourself to craft. Writing begins when you put one word in front of the other, but there’s more to writing than nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Study and practice the rudimentary elements of literature: theme, metaphor, exposition, dialog, narrative, and story. Remember that conflict is the heart of a story; without conflict there is no plot, and without plot there is no story.

Learn to edit yourself. Don’t fall in love with your words. Even the best writers have editors, but editing begins with the writer. Look at your words and imagine them written by someone else. Strike out the dead wood, kill your darlings. Stroke and polish. Send your baby out into the world dressed for success.

Accept criticism. Critics are everywhere. Learn to discern true criticism from the emotionally charged ranting of ignorant critics. True criticism offers suggestions for improvement or comments intended to encourage the author to strive for excellence. Accept good criticism; reject ignorant criticism and reviews.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Good things are happening

It's true. I’m in the final act of the SWORD SWALLOWER’S DAUGHTER and excited about where we are now. Sheila’s Daddy just bought a sailboat to live aboard. Wouldn’t that be fun?

I got an email from an editor at a very nice print magazine, saying they loved my short story, STILL LIFE, the one that tied for first place in last month’s Backspace contest. She asked if she could use it in a future edition of the magazine. I’ll reveal more details when they’re available. But I’m happy to see this story placed in such a fine magazine.

In today’s LitPark, Susan Henderson, author and playground monitor extraordinaire, included a small memoir I wrote about my mom, and included a photo of her and me taken on my wedding day. Take a look here. (Can’t wait to announce your news, Susan!)

I finished reading Kristy Kiernan’s CATCHING GENIUS. This was one of those books that you can’t wait to find out what happens, but you’re sorry it’s over when you read the last page. The final chapter was a bittersweet finish on a glorious sonata. Here is the beautiful cover again.

Here’s something to give you a chuckle this week; this is from Bud Caddell, runner up to the Tech Brew/FeedBurner contest. Bud’s entry is a takeoff of the Bulwer-Lytton (Bad) Fiction contest.

From the moment she walked in the door and let down her hair, he was hooked, hooked on those warm blonde locks drenched in the sun filtering through the cheap plastic blinds, hooked on that shade of blonde that reminded him of the icons on the site he was feverishly posting and reposting his newest blog post, the one with the image of Britney Spears with the sign of the beast so artfully photoshopped on her bare skull, so hooked that he knew, from that moment, that she was the only real linkbait he’d ever known, and that he digged her.

The Reading List:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Beyond the Chair

This guy deserves an ovation: Drew Shelley, Beyond the Chair.

Note: The following bio is blantantly ripped from Drew's website. Talk about a hero, this man refuses to let his disability rob him of adventure, excitement, and lust for life. Bravo, Drew.

Andrew Shelley has a great life. By day he is an engineer, and by night loves to listen to music and DJ. He is also an avid weekend warrior, often exploring the remote hiking trails of Southern California and the sand dunes of the surrounding deserts. Andrew Shelley, Drew to his friends, is what most people would call a successful guy, with one unique trait; Andrew has muscular dystrophy, a disease that is characterized by the progressive weakening and degeneration of muscle. To keep with his lifestyle, Drew relies on a 260 lb power chair specially equipped for extreme off-road use.

Always up for a greater challenge, Drew will embark on a solo extreme world tour in March of 2007 that would make the most weathered of adventurers cringe. His journey will bring him to some of the most remote and almost completely unreachable corners of the globe. Drew will trek through the outback of Australia, cut through the jungles of Indonesia, and even navigate across the landscape of India. Each portion of his journey presents unique difficulties for Drew to overcome with both the use and transportation of his chair. Throughout this adventure, Andrew will rely on his sheer will, engineering background, and his extreme power chair to do what is difficult for some and impossible for most. His journey will be an inspiring adventure that will demonstrate the power of human potential to overcome all odds. It’s a journey he will face alone; a journey beyond the chair.

If you're on MySpace, you can friend him here: Beyond the Chair

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Having finished Super Mom Saves the World, by Melanie Lynn Hauser, I'm now into Kristy Kiernan's debut novel, Catching Genius, which, btw, is genius. And the cover is one of the most beautiful covers; don't you just want to crawl into the screen and sit in one of those chairs overlooking that endless ocean. I'm logging off to read. Check back later.

The Reading List:

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More than a week

It’s Wednesday and I’m writing my weekly Monday post. I’m my own publisher so I guess that means I’ll have to discipline myself. Maybe I’ll dock my pay. Wait. I don’t get paid for my blog. I’ll have to figure out something else, like depriving me of chocolate for a week.

I added 2,000 more words to THE SWORD SWALLOWER’S DAUGHTER and introduced my little Sheila to one of my favorite folk singers of all time, Joan Baez. By the way, on March 6th my daddy, who really was a sword swallower, would have been 77 years old. Sadly, he passed away in 1989 while I was living in Japan.

This month’s Backspace short story contest required a story about someone who came into a large amount of money, and the story has to have a river in it. This round may be tough competition because first prize is a signed copy of FINN by Jon Clinch. I have my own copy, of course, but if I win the contest and get this signed copy, I’ll run my own contest in Ovations to give away my first copy. (I won a signed copy of Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS in the last Backspace short story contest. I’ll have to think up a contest for next week to give away my original copy of Gruen’s wonderful book.)

So, after a week submerged in the brilliant darkness of Clinch’s FINN, I have returned to blue skies and heroes. Last week I called FINN extra-dark, Belgian chocolate. Having now finishing the book I’m suggesting it’s more like aged port wine. The prose is intoxicating and the story is addictive. The conclusion ferments the pith of Twain's river saga with Clinch's detached storytelling for velvet-rich satisfaction. Barnes & Noble's Online Book Club is discussing Twain's and Clinch's books side-by-side this month and Clinch has been logging in to talk with club members. He's a great guy, very approachable, and welcomes intelligent discourse.

And now I’m reading SUPER MOM SAVES THE WORLD, Melanie Lynn Hauser’s sequel to the acclaimed CONFESSIONS OF SUPER MOM. After a week on the dark Mississippi River of Pap Finn, the bright world of Hauser’s Birdie Lee is welcome contrast. Birdie Lee is the secret identity of Super Mom, who survived a Horrible Swiffer Accident that turned her into an apron wearing, mess-cleaning, crime-fighting super hero who wants to fly. Okay, so a Swiffer accident turns divorced mom into a super hero is kind of a literary stretch. But Hauser’s voice is so engaging, her perceptions of culture so astute, her bright voice never tries to convince you that stupidity is funny. Here is my favorite line in the book so far, when Birdie is fretting over her teenaged daughter’s new friend Vienna: “... if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that a girl named after a foreign city is going to be trouble.”

Still on my reading list: