Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Still Life With Lovers

Several years ago I wrote a short story for one of the writing contests run by the online writer's group, Backspace. That story, "Still Life With Lovers," tied for first place along with a story by my friend, author A.S. King. The story has sat on my hard drive for several years now, whispering for an audience, but I've been so focused on writing and revising my current novel in progress, that I never submitted it to literature journals.
Click here to buy "Still Life With Lovers" for Nook.
Click here to buy "Still Life With Lovers" for Kindle
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During my writer's residency at Weymouth last week, I was encouraged by the success of authors Billie Hinton and Dawn DeAnna Wilson, who have published several brilliant and thought-provoking novels through Amazon (please click on their name links above to see what they've done). I'm not quite ready to go that direction with my full length fiction, but thought it would be fun to try this route with a short story. When I began thinking about which short to submit, "Still Live With Lovers" whispered again. More than a whisper, it was a shout.

I don't really know where this story came from. Many of my stories are born from ideas that have gestated in my head for years before they're birthed. These characters, two French couples a hundred years apart, spoke themselves into existence as I wrote, while one of my favorite painters came to life beside them. If character's lives could be channeled from the creative zone through an author, then that is what happened with "Still Life With Lovers."

If you buy and read the story, please let me know what you think--good or bad--I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Keyboard Creativity at Weymouth

Camellia garden at Weymouth.
Everything worth value takes time. Time to write, compose, paint, design, prepare, study. Practice. I left my home on Monday morning to join a group of three other authors for a writer's residency at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I brought my work in progress, The Sword Swallower's Daughter, with intentions to find out why agents are turning down the manuscript. Some of the agents have written me notes saying how much they enjoyed my writing, that the premise intrigued them, the characters were endearing, but ultimately, they were unable to connect with the story in the 30 pages they read. As much as I've clung to the original opening, I realized that opening was blocking delivery, and I needed to cut deep in order to birth this book.

Monday night the group let me go first in our reading. After explaining the feedback I was getting from agents, I asked them to listen as I read the opening and then give me suggestions on how I could heighten the urgency and sharpen the stakes for my lead character, Sheila. As Billie, Dawn and Lela shared their impressions, lights went on in my head, confirming what I had already been suspecting about when to open the main storyline. Just before going to bed that night, I opened my email to find a letter from my friend Brian, who is now reading the manuscript. So close to what the other three writers said, his comments became a stamp of validation.

My sunny writing nook at Weymouth.
The next morning I awoke early and found a position in a sunny nook just under a window overlooking the camellias blooming in the gardens here at Weymouth. I opened the manuscript file and got to work moving sections, deleting whole paragraphs, and inserting new insights gleaned from the previous night. Sometime in the morning I became aware of vigorous classical piano music flowing down the hall of the old stately mansion. Thinking one of the other writers was playing something from their room, I swelled at what a wonderful group I'd been invited to join. Billie came down the hall a few minutes later and gestured toward the sound and told me the music was coming live from the Yamaha concert grand downstairs.

Live piano music is comfort food to my soul. My mother played piano while I was growing up and my daughter took piano lessons and studied for competitions and recitals all the way through elementary and into her senior year in high school. Her scales and repeats and fingering exercises filled the background of my writing. Now that she's moved on to her own life, I still beg her to play piano for me when she visits. You see, I was surrounded by piano, but never learned to play. As a child we were too poor for lessons and my mother was never able to defeat the demons of her past enough to teach us herself. I took lessons when my kids were young from my friend Barbara, but found the discipline of practice too demanding while trying to keep my toddler and preschooler clean, fed and intellectually stimulated.

Concert pianist Lynn Fonseca practicing for recital on the
Yamaha concert grand piano in the great room at Weymouth.
It's Thursday and I've had three productive days of writing. Each morning the pianist has been downstairs playing the Yamaha concert grand. Today I ventured downstairs to tell her how much I appreciated her playing. I snuck into the beautiful grand room of Weymouth and melted into a chair in the corner. When she lifted her hands from the last piece, I told her how much I enjoyed her music. She welcomed me over to her side at the piano and I couldn't resist donning my journalist's cap to ask questions. I learned her name is Lynn Fonseca and she is practicing for a recital she'll give at a luncheon here at Weymouth next Tuesday. She told me she's concerned, apprehensive even, because she hasn't played publicly for several years.

I thought, how like me. She's downstairs perfecting her music for a recital, while I'm upstairs perfecting my writing to get published. We're both using keyboards, each of us working to improve what we already know to do. She's full of music, yet must draw on the skill of reading music and expressing it through her fingers. I'm full of stories, but must apply the techniques of novel writing to bring the stories alive. Music must be heard to appreciate; novels must be read to be enjoyed. 

I hope she comes again tomorrow. Even if she doesn't I'll be up here, plunking away at my keyboard, practicing my craft and piecing together the life of Sheila, the sword swallower's daughter.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Night Swim, Don't Miss It

Today, January 10, is a day I've long waited for. One of my good friends will have her first book published. I've read excerpts of this book as short stories and I've read many other pieces by this brilliant author, but this book, this lovely book, is now available to purchase. I just ordered my copy of Night Swim and I encourage you to do so also. Here's why.
Nuance in fiction is one of the most difficult storytelling techniques to master. Rather than telegraph the direction of the story, a nuanced story uses subtle hints and finely crafted metaphors and similes to build tension, express character motivation, and evoke emotion. Nuanced fiction is often called, “quiet,” “wondrous,” “thoughtful” and always referred to with reverence.
Night Swim (Fiction Studio Books) by Jessica Keener is an artfully nuanced novel with broad appeal. Every sentence of Night Swim sings with lyrical eloquence, while delivering a fully-realized story that will haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page. 
With grace and compassion, Keener takes us back to Boston during the early 1970s. When maternal love is silenced at the untimely death of her mother, 16-year-old Sarah Kunitz finds her own voice through choices both sweet and sorrowful. Keener’s lyrical prose sweeps you into the story and onto a stage where Sarah’s here and now meet her yesterday for a flawless finish.
You can catch Jessica discussing Night Swim and the luminous art of nuanced fiction in #litchat on Friday, January 13, 2012.
Go to your favorite bookstore today or order Night Swim online from one of the purchase links on Jessica's website.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Here's to 2012

Here's a glimpse of New Year's Eve 1968 through the eyes of my young protagonist, Sheila Pace, in this excerpt from my novel, THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER. Enjoy!

January 1968

I was reading in the bedroom on New Year’s Eve when Holly burst into the room with Tommie.

“Look what Tommie got for Christmas!” said Holly, carrying a portable record player.

“Neato!” I closed the book and tossed it onto the bed.

Tommie followed Holly inside, her arms stacked with record albums and forty-fives.

“This is so boss,” said Holly, “She got a record player and the Sgt Pepper’s album.”

Holly set the record player on the floor and plugged it in, then began flipping through a stack of forty-fives. She pulled out a Monkees single, saying she had to listen to “Daydream Believer” before anything else. Tommie fitted a round gadget into the big hole in the middle of a forty-five, put the record on the spindle and drew the arm across and down onto the disc. The room filled with tinny strums and the unmistakable voice of Davy Jones.

Even though I had a TV crush on Davy Jones from The Monkees, it wasn’t a serious crush like I had for Paul McCartney. The Monkees made soda pop music, but the Beatles made rock and roll. KHJ played several cuts from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I’d never heard the whole album at once.

I made the mistake of thinking myself part of the party when I asked Holly if we could stop playing

“Daydream Believer” over and over and listen to Sgt Pepper’s. Tommie nodded in agreement, which was okay because she was the owner of the records and record player.

Holly turned to me and clinched her face into a haughty scowl. “Sgt Pepper’s isn’t for little kids. Beat it.”

“But, I’ve heard almost every song already!”

“Only the ones they play on the radio,” Holly’s voice was so snotty it smeared in my ears. “Beat it.”

Tommie looked between us like a dog torn between two masters. I grabbed my book with a huff and left. Holly’s laughter followed me down the stairs like a hyena barking over a kill.

Downstairs, everyone was gathered around the red Formica table playing Yahtzee. Everyone except Ernest and Candy, who sat doubled up and leading the conversation, while Grandma, Aunt Cissy, and Mama rolled and scored. I moped over to the table, where Grandma pulled me to her side and told me I could roll for her as long as she could give the cup its orders.

The grown-ups were drinking something orange in a fancy pedestal glass. When I asked what it was,

Grandma said it was hellfire and did I want a sip?

“Eww!” I told her no.

“That’s what you said about coffee and you liked it.”

Mama cocked her head to Grandma. “You gave her coffee?”

“Why not? I gave it to you at her age.”

Mama nodded. “Yeah, and look how good I turned out.” Mama took a swig of her hellfire and waved the glass. “Here’s to apricot brandy and Yahtzee.” She put the glass down with a thump, swiped the dice from the table and threw them into the cup.

“Whoa there, Edie,” said Grandma. “You’re not used to that stuff.”

“Then I should get more used to it.” She took another gulp and laughed like I’d never heard before.

I liked this happy New Year’s Eve Mama. She smiled like one of her soap opera heroines and even sparkled when we turned out the lights for the ten second countdown to the new year. When Grandma switched on the lights at midnight, Mama was gazing at Ernest like I’d seen Daddy look at Marnie. He was looking back at her with the same starry eyes. I glanced over to see if Aunt Cissy noticed, but she was refilling Candy’s 7-up glass.

Grandma picked up her hellfire, held it aloft, and said, “Here’s to the new year and new lives.” The grownups clinked their hellfire, Candy and I clicked our 7-up and then Mama grabbed Ernest and planted a long one on his lips. My heart dropped to my gut. Ernest was Aunt Cissy’s boyfriend. Or so we thought.