Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Courage

It's nearly Christmas, the shopping is nearly done, the wrapping and shipping nearly finished. My first Christmas post-divorce, and my second without my children.

It's strange how grief rolls out over time. Dealing with the pain of distance from my kids has been a daily trial. The wrenching pain of this distance is a wound that has to be dressed every single day. Because of its severity, other pain gets pushed away, pushed down because there is only so much you can handle at one time, and pain related to children triumphs all others.

I looked at my puppy Charlie the other day, and remembered the dog I had to leave behind.

The dog I loved, and who loved me. I had no choice; my ex-husband needed Courage and loved him more than any dog we'd ever had. It would have been cruel to take him. Savage even. And despite the pain and rage and fear of my departure, I couldn't do that.

And so that little dog, who was also my favorite dog of all, the one who loved me best, had to stay when I left.

It's been almost two years, a long time in a dog's life. I imagine how he has aged. I wonder if he wondered what happened to me. I wonder if dogs can think back and remember.

But I don't stay long in those wonderings.

I can't.

God is good. He has given me this new little dog to love. So strange and funny and smart and weird. In loving him, I am beginning to be able to mourn Courage. Which I think, is a sign of healing.

Merry Christmas Courage. I am petting you in my heart.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tree Update

Here's how the tree turned out:

I'm thinking new traditions aren't so bad.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On Changing Traditions

I've been scouring nearby towns for white Christmas tree lights. For some reason they are very difficult to find, and we are only half-way through December! The Christmas tree tradition I am used to, with my family of origin and the family I raised, was colored lights. But after some major life shifts, the old traditions are just too painful.

After a fruitless search, I settled for white icicle lights. I'll drape them and tuck them and do what I can to hide the fact that they weren't intended for a tree. And I'll use coordinated colors, gold and a turquoisey blue, something I've also never done before.

And it will be a good Christmas.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Video Note to Self

In an effort to keep this blog a bit more up to date and active, I've decided to start posting the random thoughts that run through my brain about what's happening in these parts.

Here's the first. Because I do need one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

So Much More than Just Books...

My heart hurts for the couple downstairs.

This afternoon I looked through the "Free Books!" bin they often place near the sidewalk in front. There was the usual collection of uncorrected proofs (Kirsten used to work in a local indie bookshop). But two titles stood out from the rest.

One was The Complete Organic Pregnancy. The other was Things That Go, a board book by Richard Scarry.

It has been two months. I miss Kirsten's laughter.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A book to be sipped: Thanks Jabberwocky.

I attended a great set of readings at the Jabberwocky Bookshop a week or so ago. Jaed Coffin and Paul Harding gave us a peek into some of their current work. Both pieces were appropriately macabre given the season. Two bodies burned; one already dead, the other alive... at least for a while.

I'm now reading Paul's Pulitzer prize winning novel Tinkers, which is darkly gorgeous; lyrical, insightful, and tender but masculine. The tale intermixes the dingy reality of death with a glorious and real contemplation of the universe, all conveyed in prose that often reads like poetry.

Beautiful, beautiful stuff. A book to be sipped.

It is wonderful to be in this part of the country, so rich in writers and places that celebrate them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Boston Book Fest!

Excited to be attending the Boston Book Festival on Saturday!

Looking forward to great content in beautiful settings around Copley Square.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Initial reviews of "The Cove Keeper"

My second picture book, The Cove Keeper, is ready to hit the pavement! I began submitting it today.

Initial critical reviews are very positive:

"Simply and truly done. A finely wrought spiritual conversation which is a pleasure to listen to and appealing to all ages and cultures."

"A tale with meaning for everyone today. A mixture of fable and faith, so right away the reader's reality transfers to a different world, more significant than the one he/she is standing in."

"Beautiful, lyrical, spiritual, well-crafted and subtle. Expands the bounds not only of Christian faith, but of culture. I loved this piece."

"Provokes the question: What role does fable play in our makeup?"

"Suzanne has a great gift for the mythic, and a very credible innocence. Genuine and deeply felt."

"A lovely, poignant tale, much needed at this time in our culture."


Friday, October 7, 2011

Book Recommendation: The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus

I recently read The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by Sonya Sones, a novel written as a series of poems.

The protagonist is a woman facing menopause and an empty nest, and Sones conveys this stage of life with hope, humor, and an appropriate amount of pathos.

It is an amazing form, and would be fun to try someday when my list of projects grows shorter!

Find a copy and check it out.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Writing of another sort

This week I'm entertaining my mom and step dad, who are visiting from New York State. Not much time for writing on paper; re-writing history instead.

(Thanks DiDi.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Where Sabrina Reigns, Queen of the Colony

I'm recovering from the weird, weird world of Salem MA after attending the literary festival last weekend. I'm surprised there aren't thousands of novels set in that town. Interesting characters haunt every corner. History and tragedy and cheesy tourism come together in a rich slurry. It reminds me a tiny bit of New Orleans, though I'm sure I'd get a lot of flack from either set of locals about that.

I can't imagine actually being one of those locals, or spending enough time there to use it as a primary setting.

But it could be a place where one of my characters goes for the day and encounters...
Guess I'd better save that for the book.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Anticipating a good read! Thanks Katherine.

I attended the Salem Literary Festival today:

The talks and discussion panels were fantastic!

I'm particularly excited to read Katherine Howe's debut novel (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane), which I picked up after hearing her talk as part of a panel on creating strong female characters. Katherine is an intriguing, articulate, and informed presenter which makes me think her writing should be similarly compelling. The book centers around a figure from the Salem witch trials which is sure to be fascinating. It was a New York Times best seller, and received great reviews from many sources.

Stay tuned and I'll let you know what I think!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Andre's in the House

Last night Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog (an Oprah Book Club pick) gave a reading and Q&A session here in Newburyport.

I love this town.

The charming Andre is a local who grew up in nearby Haverhill, and is pitching his new memoir Townie.

Instead of reading from the new book, Andre shared passages from his work in progress; a set of 4 novellas which he claims will not be marketable. (We'll see about that, with Oprah in his his contact list.)

He spoke to the audience about the process of writing, and the need to seek for the truth of the story despite an author's preconceptions.

A difficult task.

We want to write what we WANT to write, not what the story wants us to put down. And sometimes tales take us places we don't intend to go.

The Newburyport Public Library hosted this great event. I'm grateful to them. Guess I'd better join the Friends. And so should you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Happy Birthday Ian

My youngest child, Ian, was born 18 years ago today.

Happy birthday buddy.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals

I'm just fininishing the book Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill, which I highly recommend. It reminds me a bit of White Oleander by Janet Fitch in subject matter. Both books follow a neglected and abused child through the process of survival.

Lullabies is more sophisticated, but less lyrical. It is wittily poignant whereas Oleander is dolorously beautiful and dripping with angst. Lullabies conveys the mystical depth of a child's visual imagination, whereas Oleander's beauty is more verbally poetic.

Oleander strives for sophistication but ends up being overwrought. Lullabies sophistication is a natural offshoot of its simplicity.

O'Neill has an amazing gift for story telling, creative turns of phrase, and depth of insight into the heart of a child.

Go out and get it. You won't be sorry.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Post Hurricane Hope

The sadness of wrapping up a divorce and living within the aftermath has been like a bowl turned over my world. Light and sound and color are muted, energy and creativity sapped.

Writing and blogging have been set to the side for a short season, hence the quiet.

The hurricane passed yesterday, parting like the Red Sea in two swaths around us. Today the sun is shining and the air cool and breezy. Can a day feel like hope?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Shaking it off

I've been fumbling around for the past few days, fighting off some sort of weird summer bug. It's hard to get any work done when your mind is fuzzy and your head aching and generally feeling like your body has been exposed to toxic chemicals.

Strange how it hit just as I was falling into a good writing groove...

Feeling a bit better today and hoping for productivity.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wake Me Up for the Finale

I went to watch the fireworks Thursday night, and came home melancholy.

The crowd was quiet. Too quiet. Disturbingly quiet.

I remember the fireworks of my childhood, growing up in various places around New York State. They were infrequent, much anticipated, and never observed in silence.

I remember the 4th of July "ring of fire" the year I lived on Conesus Lake. Everyone put flares on the shore of their property, and fireworks were launched from a raft in the middle of the lake. The reflection spread out over the water like a second set was being launched sub-marine.

I remember bottle rockets and more smuggled home from friends who traveled south, brought out by dark of night during camping trips. How exciting and dangerous it felt to be that close to them, the illicit scent of their smoke mixing with the campfire.

After high school, I remember a summer of tall ships in my new city's harbor, with a 4th of July sesquicentennial fireworks display that was bigger and more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen.

I remember the summer my 23 year old daughter was born. I was in labor as the Independence Day fireworks started downtown, and my husband urged me to climb on the picnic table in the back yard to try to see them.

When the kids were little, I remember getting in the boat at the cottage each Dominion Day and driving in to town at dusk. We would join the flotilla there with the engine off, floating and watching the Canadian fireworks with blasts of the airhorn and cheers from all sides.

After a while fireworks became a twice a year event, and I recall bundling up after a few cocktails and heading downtown on New Year's eve. The explosions of color and light were reflected in the glass of skyscrapers, and on the water of the river.

These pyrotechnic displays were major events in the calendar of the year, critical pieces in the secular liturgy of the seasons. We didn't take them lightly. If you missed one, you had to wait a whole year for another chance.

They were occasions for wonder. The beauty of the colors and shapes were not things we saw in everyday life. The scale and scope and sound of it all was a rare thing. And so we responded with awe. We would catch our breath when a chrysanthemum blossomed in the dark sky before our eyes. We would giggle as the high-pitched shriekers sailed out in trails of color. We would gasp and flinch when explosive reports percussed our ear drums.

And always, always there would be oohing and ahhing. Corny, trite, predictable, ubiquitous oohing and ahhing.

I myself was a queen of the ooh and ahh. I loved participating in the excitement. I marveled with my family at each display. In the early days, my kids were similarly infected, chattering with me as a favorite shape or style or sound was fired into the night.

That's what fireworks are all about. Or used to be.

Something shifted a few years ago. Firework displays became weekly events in many towns throughout the summer. In my former city, there were fireworks after nearly every minor league baseball game plus a weekly pyrotechnic laser show on the river gorge. I'm not sure what brought about the change. Perhaps the price of fireworks dropped given the trade situation with China. Perhaps cities think spending this kind of cash will increase the tax base enough to justify the cost.

Maybe it even works. I don't know.

Coupled with the increased availability of fireworks displays is the extent to which our faculties are bombarded with sensory input. In the days of my childhood fireworks, movie theaters didn't have surround sound. Special effects were rudimentary. Televisions were small boxes that sat on a table or in a wall unit in the living room. Today they are the focal point of the house and take up entire walls of multiple rooms. Expensive sound systems add 3D audio to the mix so that you don't have to leave the house to feel your ear drums tremble as volcano's erupt, rock bands blare, or fans scream from the grand stand. Special effects and digital animation techniques have taught our eyes that fantastic shapes and colors and ornate patterns are no longer special. They have become mundane. Ordinary. Expected.

When you combine these two things; the frequency and availability of fireworks displays and the constant over stimulation of our senses, the result is ennui. We struggle to generate enthusiasm.

Now crowds of people gather to watch fireworks, hungry for wonder but unable to be impressed. That's what I experienced on a beautiful Thursday evening in my quaint seaside town. Families with children and old people on motor scooters, teenagers and lovers, middle aged fogies like me walking dogs, all gathered in hope of experiencing that old, lost magic. But once the fireworks started, the initial excitement turned into boredom. Quickly.

The worst part is that I was one of them. Partway through the show I began to yawn.

That made me sad. And it made me mad that something precious had been stolen when I wasn't paying attention. And sad that I had somehow cooperated in its loss. And mad that there's very little I can do about it now.

At least the town itself is trying. Unlike several beach towns to the north, mine chose not to have weekly fireworks throughout the summer, despite being a major tourist destination with deep pockets. It limited itself to a single celebration, culminating a week of old fashioned pleasures.

Maybe after I've been here a few years I will be able to watch like I did in the past, with oohs and ahhs instead of yawns.

I hope it's not too late.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


I haven't done much journaling over the past year and a half. Though pain and mourning have been steady companions, I've tried not to entertain them for too long. I can't stop their inevitable visits throughout the day, but do try to usher them back out rather than hang around chatting.

DiDi has urged me to journal about it however. Multiple times. She said it will help me process the grief, and could be useful for my kids to read in later years.

I've resisted, thinking it will keep me in a place of pain more of the time, when I'm supposed to be focusing on all of the wonderful positives of this season of my life.

She's right of course.

I realized that my journal doesn't reflect what I've been going through. My posts in it have dwindled, usually just notes focusing on what happened at church. It tells little about my mind and heart and life. If my kids do want to understand this confusing phase later, say after my death, I won't have left much behind to help them.

And so I began yesterday.

I'll probably be at it for a while, just to catch up. Not to mention keeping pace with the issues that don't seem to stop as this divorce grinds slowly toward its finale.

It's not the type of writing that I want to do. But it is necessary.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The importance of review...

I'm in the final drafts of my second picture book. While not centering on Wampanoag history, the main character is an American Indian girl and details of Wampanoag life and culture are included in the text and artwork (once it has been created). Because of this, I've asked Manitonquat (aka Medicine Story), a Wampanoag author, medicine man, and story teller, to review the book.

The book merges Wampanoag and Christian spirituality through the story of a girl who loves a beautiful cove on a New England shore, and becomes the keeper of it at the end of her life when she joins her ancestors. In the context of the story, it shows how Christian and American Indian views of creation, life after death, and other issues are perhaps not so very different.

Manitonquat is particularly suited for the task of review given his work promoting peace around the world. While my book is meant to be a story that will enchant and entertain children, its secondary goal is to reduce the distrust and superstition some Christians may feel toward forms of spirituality they don't understand.

I've received some preliminary feedback so far, but nothing detailed. Looking forward to more...

Monday, July 18, 2011


This morning I've been working on the business side of writing: "networking". I found a bunch of writing groups on Linked In and am trying to figure out how much to participate in them, if at all.

How much more useful or valuable is Linked In compared to Facebook? How much time should be spent in online discussion venues like these, when there is actual writing to be done?

Or more accurately, how much online-networking is justifiable for not sitting down to actually write?

I'm thinking it has to be limited. I should come up with a ratio. Or someone should.

It's not that I haven't been productive lately. I'm working on the 3rd draft of my second picture book, and the reliable reader plot and villains are pretty well nailed. I sent off more submissions and queries for the first picture book, and continue to look for the right magazine for my food-related writing interests.


Writing seems to induce a strange inertia. When I'm not sitting in front of the keyboard or notebook, ideas wait to jump from my brain through my fingertips. The moment the fingers touch a writing implement however, the urge to do anything but write kicks in.

And look what happens when you succumb: boredom! Even writing about the phenomenon is boring!

Guess I'll log off and work on some actual writing. Draft 4 awaits...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sharp barbs in surprising places

My son graduated from high school on Saturday. How strange to drive 7 hours to attend.

Pain and joy, pain and joy, pain and joy.

The pain comes from strange and unanticipated places. The simple act of grocery shopping can bring it. For example, the other day I noticed that there are non-brand name versions of the single serving packs of vanilla yogurt topped with a cap full of candy.

The world has moved on.

I began buying the name-brand cups for him when they first came out. They were a wonderful discovery for my picky son, at a time when I had less than a handful of acceptable school lunch options.

I don't buy them anymore. And they are no longer new; off brands exist now when I won't save a few cents by choosing them.

Simple sights can send the sharpest barbs.

Monday, June 13, 2011

God like a radish

I'm back to reading Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. I took a break from it for a lighter book or two. Needed a diversion from its dark brilliance.

But I'm back now, and quotes jump off page after page.

One section about Christmas gifts is a good illustration. The protagonist, and old lady retelling the story of her life, describes a plum pudding she received as being made of molasses and caulking compound. The same person also gave her a two-dimensional painted wooden cat with a halo and angel wings. The giver suggested that it would look nice hanging over the stove.

Here's the paragraph which follows this setup:
"Good position, I told her. Angel above, and a carnivorous angel too -- high time they came clean on that subject! Oven below, as in all the most reliable accounts. Then there's the rest of us in between, stuck in Middle Earth, on the level of the frying pan. Poor Myra was baffled, as she always is by theological discourse. She likes her God plain -- plain and raw, like a radish."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On The God of the Hive

I just finished The God of the Hive, the 10th in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series.

Laurie is one of those authors for whom I scan the "new titles" shelves at the library each visit. She is a satisfying writer on many levels, consistently delivering a solid plot, fast-paced story line, interesting characters, multiple locales, a bit of intrigue, a social issue of consequence, and a satisfying ending. I also love the way she pulls issues related to faith into each book, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. (Click here to read Ms. King's comments about the title of the book, and why the concept of a god is included.)

Mary Russell speaks in first person through most of the chapters, while other chapters follow her husband Sherlock Holmes' activities and thoughts, or those of the villain. One chapter was presented from the perspective of a bird. (Not really sure why... the device didn't add much and was a little bit distracting.)

The chapters tend to be short with lots of action, cliff hangers, and witty one-line closings.

Very little attention is given to the development of the primary characters, which is a luxury afforded to the series novelist. Ms. King instead focuses her character development prowess on lesser characters, in this case the fey Robert Goodman and Holme's precocious 3-year old granddaughter Estelle. King has a knack for creating strong, interesting characters without trespassing into caricature. I'm trying to study how she accomplishes this tightrope walk for the novel I'm working on, given its cast of quirky individuals.

Looks like Ms. King has another Mary Russell book in the works, called Pirate King.

Can't wait!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Character Development

I'm reading A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff; commercial fiction about a woman who owns a vintage clothing store in London. I was in the mood for something frothy, which this book promised, but as with many confections, it didn't quite satisfy.

The story contains several promising subplots. The protagonist struggles with guilt related to her best friend's death; she'd become engaged to a man with whom the friend was in love and the resulting heartache appears to have resulted in the woman's suicide. She later befriends an elderly woman who shared similar guilt from childhood, having told the son of an Italian gestapo member where her Jewish friend was hiding, thinking he would help.

Other details within the book are also promising: vintage clothing and the potential stories related to each piece; the unhealthy connection between a beau and his spoiled daughter; another beau's interest in classic, early films; the complexity of a father who goes off to have a child with another woman and the resulting trauma for the mother. All this seems like great fodder. The author had plenty to work with.

So given that the book presents challenging major themes and includes interesting details and relationship complexity, I've been trying to figure out how it ends up vapid.

I think the problem must be in the character development.

The protagonist feels guilt but that's all you really know about her other than her career choices. She appears to be "nice" in a vanilla pudding sort of way, befriending the old woman and being kind to her infant brother. But there is no real depth. She is smooth and bland, with nothing to like or dislike about her.

The other characters are similarly lacking in dimension, each presenting a single face throughout the book.

The most intriguing character is the secondary love interest. He's given very little airtime, which perhaps explains why he is intriguing. With him you are at least allowed to wonder and hope that there is more.

Two other characters who made brief appearances were also stronger than the lead players, perhaps again due to brevity.

So what am I to learn about character development from this book?

First the main character has to be complex and flawed. I've read this over and over again in articles about the craft, but this protagonist brought it home for me.

Second, there needs to be more going on within the heroine than just the primary conflict.

Third, secondary characters also need to be dimensional. I might be able to get away with one or two minor characters who are so colorful that demonstrating depth beneath the surface isn't necessary. They can be treated like artwork, or the squirt of lime that brightens the flavor of a cocktail. But for the major secondaries, even the colorful ones, dimension and complexity must be conveyed.

Fourth, saying less about a character may actually work toward their believability because the reader is drawn in by wondering what's behind the curtain. To make this work I'd probably need to build mystery.

I've not quite finished the book, but am very glad I selected it. Turns out it has been very instructive.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin is both a good story, and a lesson in the craft.

It contains a story within a story within a story, which is interesting from the perspective of both reader and writer. And each story could stand on its own.

First, there is the old lady chronicling her life, showing us that each easily dismissed graying face holds an entire soap opera of affairs that she -could- tell, if she would tell.

Second is the life of the young girl/ woman, as she lives through World Wars and the Great Depression, marrying for money in an attempt to save the family fortunes.

Third is the tale of the brusque and sexy communist, hiding out and trysting with the heroine in stolen moments and dingy borrowed rooms.

Fourth is the science fiction love story the man tells her after lovemaking.

And I'm only halfway through the book. For all I know the story of the sister may emerge as its own tale as well.

One of the things that is instructive is the way the author shifts point of view. It shows that it isn't strictly necessary to choose one POV and stick to it. Not only that, she also shifts the way that she presents dialog. It's handled in the traditional way when the narrator speaks in the first person, telling the story of her life. Quotation marks break out the text in which people speak, as we have come to expect. But when the young woman and the man spend time together, their dialog is not separated by the standard punctuation, making it less real. Dreamlike.

The book shows me that you can drift away from standard approaches and standard handling and still be cohesive, still flow easily for the reader.

On the down side, I'm wondering if Ms. Atwood's name means that her editor pays slightly less attention than might otherwise be the case. The narrator has a tendency to ask rhetorical questions while following a line of thought, and then answer them. This ends up being a little bit distracting.

A minor issue, but it's encouraging to find small criticisms for good writers. Makes the goal seem more achievable.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dialog, dialog

I'm reading Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" which contains very little dialog, and is written as a sort of flowing stream of memories. Given that I find dialog a bit intimidating, it would be great if this approach would work for the novel in progress. Unfortunately, the story revolves too much around the interactions of central characters and so I think I have to stick with it.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On picture books...

I've been feeling inspired to work on my second picture book, this one for an intermediate reader. The first book was a rhyming book for toddlers, this one tells a story inspired by a moonrise over a beautiful ocean cove in Washington state. Totally different in style, other than that they both have a sense of beauty and wonder centering around nature.

Last week I submitted the first book to 7 more publishers and agents. They say it is a numbers game, so I keep at it.

To illustrate or not to illustrate remains an open debate. I am so connected to the idea of what the pictures need to look like that leaving it to a publisher makes me nervous. DiDi introduced me to her brother-in-law the other day, a trained artist and all around interesting guy, and I sent the mockup to him this morning. We'll see whether or not it works out.

The next picture book is different. The illustrations will be necessary, but there is a lot more latitude because the story will carry itself. I won't be as anxious about it as I am with this one.

At least, I hope not...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cookbook Love Blog goes live!

I started a new blog devoted to my love of vintage recipes and cookbooks. I think it might be helpful when pitching food-related articles and book ideas.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Missing list from Time Traveler's Wife

I just found the list on Google Books which I mentioned in a previous post! Yay!

Here it is, the list for which I see no real purpose. (Especially given that the dadgum book is about 550 pages long!)

The brown paper bags stand evenly lined up on the counter and Henry produces ketchup, chicken, Gouda cheese from them like a magician. I keep waiting for the rabbit and the silk scarves. Instead it's mushrooms, black beans, fettuccine, lettuce, a pineapple, skim milk, coffee, radishes, turnips, a rutabaga, oatmeal, butter, cottage cheese, rye bread, mayonnaise, eggs, razors, deodorant, Granny Smith apples, half and half, bagels, shrimp, cream cheese, Frosted Mini-Wheats, marinara sauce, frozen orange juice, carrots, condoms, sweet potatoes... condoms?

OK, so I get that she wanted to establish the surprise of the condoms, but it really could have been accomplished with either a shorter list, or one more interesting. The carrot/condom combination was not enough humor (and not good enough humor) to count as payoff.

So there. Found the list. Posted it. Now I can stop talking about it and simply remember not to do it.

Time Handling: an ongoing commentary

This post will be updated periodically as I come across devices authors use for unfolding their stories back and forth through time.
  • June 12, 2011--Laurie R. King provides details about backstory in and interesting way. When The God of the Hive opens, you are immediately thrust into the middle of action. Clearly much has happened that is yet to be explained. Ms. King weaves descriptions of previous events throughout the first half of the book, maybe even farther. She incorporates them judiciously, leaving many questions unanswered in order to keep the reader wondering how this or that happened. The technique may be easier to pull off when you have as many books in a series, like this one. Most readers are familiar enough with the style, characters, and approach to plot that they won't find it off-putting. Not sure it would work so well in a first book or a standalone piece. She also leaves a few cliff hangers unanswered, about which fans have commented on her blog. Not sure why she did that Maybe the scenes ended up on the editing room floor without editorial clean up of the pages that survived. Perhaps the book traveled too quickly to print?
  • June 1, 2011--Margaret Atwood is a master, plain and simple. The Blind Assassin is all about shifts forward and backward in time, and she handles it very simply via changes in chapter. Clean and elegant.
  • May 10, 2011--This morning I finished reading Nicole Seitz' The Inheritance of Beauty. The book centers around a group of childhood friends who come back into each other's lives when they are elderly. The sense of secrets and mystery is slowly developed as the pages turn. The author uses several devices to tell the story of what happened years ago. She uses letters as a form of confession tool, memories from the one lucid central character, and the daydreams and mind wanderings of two other elderly characters who no longer communicate with the outside world.
  • May 6, 2011--Goldie Goldbloom (in The Paperbark Shoe) weaves events from the past in and out of the present in a free form style, as mini-stories inserted into the ongoing first person narrative. The heroine will be talking about one thing and then smoothly segue into a story which provides explanation about why she was in a lunatic asylum, or how her little girl died, or why she puts flowers on the grave of a man she never met. It works very well in the overall piece which reads like a stream of consciousness. (BTW: You can't quite determine if she is telling the story from the future or in the present as it unfolds. You might even wonder if it could be both, though how could that be possible? This weird wondering somehow adds to the book's dark magic.) I like the way Goldie handles the unfolding of backstory... it reads the way you talk when telling your own stories. You have to interrupt the main tale periodically to explain why your aunt was wearing that green shirt, or how you came to discover your seafood allergy, or how surprised you were that it happened on your parents anniversary. She uses a narrative style that is natural, which probably helps the story feel so real.

Monday, May 9, 2011

On lists and depth and artistry

A few weeks ago a Facebook friend and I discussed the use of lists in novels. I criticized the way Audrey Niffenegger included a long grocery list in The Time Traveler's Wife, because it seemed to serve no real purpose. It was simply a long list, random in presentation of items, containing nothing symbolic or meaningful. It wasn't lyrical or even interesting. I don't understand why it didn't end up in the big bit bucket in the sky (now that the editing room floor is no longer a real death of phrase). I wish I still had the book so that I could include it to show you what I mean, but it just wasn't something I had to keep around, taking up precious bookshelf real estate.

In contrast are two lists that Goldie Goldbloom includes in her astonishingly beautiful The Paperbark Shoe. The book is the story of a young woman stuck through difficult life circumstances on an Australian outback farm during World War II.

Here's the first one:

The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckos, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand.

And the second, later in the book:

These are the things that I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem: I learned how to make yeast, to bake bread, to make a bread pan out of an old kerosene tin, how to clean a kerosene tin and flatten it and smooth the edges with a rasp, how to trim the wick on a kerosene lamp, to clean the chimney of a kerosene lamp with a piece of newspaper crumpled in a ball, how to remove creosote from my skin with yellow soap, how to make yellow soap from ash and lye and fat, how to make lye, how to render fat, how to cook on a woodstove, how to split wood with an axe, how to sharpen an axe, how to treat burns from a woodstove, how to treat burns from lye, how to treat a man who has been burnt, how to treat a man, how a man likes to be treated, how to make a maternity dress, how to make a layette, how to push out a baby, how to cut an umbilical cord with the knife used for castrating the lambs, how to feed an infant, how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.

Stunning. Beautiful. Informative. Heart breaking.

The depth and intricacy of this book both intimidates and inspires me. I'm trying to figure out how to achieve the level of depth that she unfolds throughout the story, and am wondering if it is done in layers, the way a painter paints. First you lay down the basic story as a framework, a sketch. Then you put down the initial layer of color and some level of detail. And you keep adding layers, creating texture and shadow until finally the piece is done and you have to stop before you break it.

I think about my little heroine and her story, and at present she is very flat in comparison. But maybe that is ok. Maybe right now she is just the initial sketch.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On contrasting writing styles

I am reading Anne Rice's Of Love and Evil. It's been a few years since I've read her, and this piece is more simply written than I remember her work to be. After reading John Irving's dark complexity this book seems rather one-note though much more optimistic (thankfully.) I had to take a break from his wearisome fatalism. Yes life is peppered with harsh realities, but it is also flooded with light. The tale he tells in A Widow for One Year is a masterpiece of interwoven subtleties and human frailties. I was initially intimidated by the depth of texture. But halfway through I feel beaten down. The hero is mostly a wienie. The heroine is simultaneously selfish and self-hating. Perhaps this will all resolve itself into something more hopeful than what has unfolded so far but that's not at all certain. I could very well reach the end of the book and feel worse than I did halfway through. I'll admire Irving for his finely honed craft, but feel like crap.

In contrast, while Rice's book also deals with the darkness of the human soul, albeit on a one-note level, it is ultimately hopeful.

It is interesting to contrast writing styles, both in the way that they handle the darkness and light of life, and in the handling of how they actually put the story into words.

But that's a topic for another post.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Settled... mostly

It has been a month since my last post, and I am finally settled into a new/old apartment in New England with DiDi. It is in the oldest house on a small street (built in the early 1700's) in the center of the village. Every pine floor tilts and twists, making furniture positioning a challenge.

We created a small writing nook for me overlooking the street. Empty bookshelves wait to be filled. This morning, rain droplets surrealize the view. It is quiet, save for the hum and click of this machine. Stasia's breath next to the keyboard can't be heard. She leans against it and against my hand as I type. We have reached an agreement in this way; she wants my hands actively touching her, I want my hands actively typing. Compromise is required.

For the first time in my life, I am supremely, profoundly, peacefully happy. I am at peace. It is what I have always longed for; simple peace. Although living like a college student in too little space with very little money, I have finally achieved what I always wanted.


Simply peace.

An interesting cat, a public library three blocks away, the best of all possible friends, and peace.

I didn't expect it so soon. I'm still not sure why it was important to leave town before my son's graduation, when there were only a few months to go. My sole pain lies in the distance from him, and from my daughter who lives her own new life, across the country. But I walk in faith and trust that He has this in His hands, and that all will be reconciled eventually.

And so I wait, and rest, in peace.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Impossibly early

A few months ago I dreamt that I was fleeing from danger and betrayal. It was winter. In flight, I jumped on a sled that sped down a steep, snow covered hill. I saw my face as the snow spray hit it and filled my open mouth. I don't remember watching my face while dreaming before. I saw it transform from animal fear to exhilaration as the ride continued. As the hill leveled out, a magical thing happened; strangely beautiful flowers appeared from the snow, growing as I watched. The cold, stark whiteness became enchanted. The plants themselves sparkled as they writhed into life.

It was beautiful. And reassuring.

Today is March 10. In upstate New York, that means it's still winter, and will be for weeks to come. Yesterday I noticed that the tree beside the driveway is in flower. The bare branches are covered with small yellow blossoms.

Impossibly early.

The signs are appearing.

I'll be leaving soon.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Template change

Crud. I just discovered a bug in my previous pretty template; the date of posts did not show up, though the time did. There were a few other inconveniences with the template, but I've liked the look and feel and finding a new one is a pain in the neck.


If you've been reading and are wondering what happened to the night skyline etc., now you know.

"Books I'm Reading" page

I added a new page to the site today, called "Books I'm Reading". Pretty self explanatory I think.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Working while recovering

My body has been struggling against pneumonia, and during periods of energy I've been trying to get a few things done. Luckily reading -has- been an option and so I've had C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength to fill my mind with interesting thoughts and periodically beautiful prose. Martha Grimes' Cold Flat Junction is also at my bedside, half read. I picked this piece back up to be inspired by her character development and first person point of view handling.

I've also been reading Writer's Digest articles on outlining strategies and other tools of the craft.

Plus while dozing, a character name popped into my head for the reluctant reader book which has been percolating for a few weeks.

I managed two submissions as well, so while I'm frustrated at functioning at a low ebb, I'm grateful for what has been accomplished. And I'm hopeful that I'm on the mend...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What I'm reading

I finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. Two books quite different other than their first person point of view. Both of them pretty light however. Next I need something dark, and so for contrast will read Stephen King's recent collection of 4 long stories titled Full Dark, No Stars.

The publisher's cover design makes it look like a sequel to the Twilight saga:

You'd think his name would warrant more subtly inspired artwork, but maybe he is just so prolific that new releases aren't big news.

I'm also reading Judy Moody and Diary of a Wimpy Kid as research.

I need my days to be longer.

Friday, February 11, 2011

This week in a nutshell

Submissions and queries for Hello Mommy continue, along with several magazine article pitches. I've also begun work on a short chapter book for 2nd-3rd grade male reluctant readers. Meanwhile, thoughts appropriate to the Theology of Desire seem to be re-emerging after a nearly year-long hiatus. Check out today's posting here:

Friday, February 4, 2011

February RACWI meeting

I attended a meeting of Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators last night, my first connection with a local writing group. Given that I'll be moving before long I don't think I'll join; I'll find some groups closer to my new home. Grub Street for certain.

It was a useful session. A panel of children's librarians (both public and school) from around the area answered questions about reading trends, books they wish there were more of, etc. Interesting highlights included the need for:
  • Fiction books to support social studies and science curriculum.
  • Fun books to lure reluctant readers into the joy of reading.
  • Books with age appropriate content but lower level vocabulary for older kids who read below level. For example, imagine a teacher trying to encourage a high schooler who currently only reads at a 4th grade level... Judy Moody isn't going to cut it.
  • Elementary level biographies.

The general consensus was that kids love-love-love series, and are currently stuck on all things vampire, zombie, and fantasy. (In case you didn't know.)

I'm glad I went, and have been ruminating all night about a book for a 3rd grade little boy who doesn't yet know he loves to read...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Another one bites the dust!

I received a rejection letter this morning for an article on Lent that I'd sent to a Catholic magazine published in Canada. It was a kind rejection, pointing out that 80% of their writers had to be Canadian, and that their quota of Americans was full.

My list of submissions for various pieces is growing, and as my friend DiDi tells me, rejection letters are a sign that I am moving forward in my life as a writer. It is good to have friends who are optimists and encouragers. They point out truths that you don't always see on your own.

On character development

I'm looking forward to moving sometime in the coming months. Heading for a small town in New England, there to find small town life, small town characters, small town experiences. I want to get a job as a waitress in a diner, so that I can meet people. It will be an adventure to watch and serve them. Should be a wealth of material. I can't wait.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Goodbye Cookbook Collector

I finished The Cookbook Collector and am stuck with essentially the same view I've had all along. I don't get it.

On the plus side, Ms. Goodman wrapped up the many story lines in hopeful ways (ala commercial fiction?) The nice girl gets married, the traumatized girl gets a new goal in life. The side characters end up with enough money, the girl of their dreams, etc. It's all very tidy, which makes you feel good inside though you may question the feasibility of such ubiquitous tidiness.

On the negative side, there were so many story lines. It could have been at least 2 books, probably 3. I would have loved to see Jess investigate the cookbook collector's life further, as that story line alone was rich and deep. Instead it was merely touched on, while details of IPOs and plummets were extensive.

I GET the idea of an ensemble cast, and of telling multiple tales at once. The stories were woven together reasonably well, but the overall impact for me was diluted. It didn't have enough of what I wanted. Readers feel misled when the title implies focus on one thing, and the book actually focuses on another. They/we look at a title like this and expect a cozy read involving cookbooks. That's what they hope for. That's not what they get.

I learned a lot from this book! It gives me hope, and focus. It helps me see how far I should go in providing back story about side characters. It warns me to keep the central focus on my heroine, and let the side stories support and feed it rather than compete with it. And it encourages me to include the types of writing that I love to do, such as she employed in chapter 22.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Custom jobs

I just sent my picture book to a denominational Christian publisher. It took over an hour to research their specific submission requirements and modify my cover letter to meet them. Turns out submitting to agents and publishers can't ever really become like a production line. I'd hoped that once I had a few letters drafted, all I'd have to do is find new potential companies and then blast them off. No such luck; each submission is a custom job.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Here's part of why Chapter 22 of The Cookbook Collector made me so happy: it contained a key scene centering around a peach, that most sensuous of fruits. Given that I wrote so much about peaches on the Theology of Desire, seeing one handled so perfectly in this chapter was pure deliciousness.

(Click here for examples:

Too bad Ms. Goodman couldn't have stayed in the place she conveyed so well in this scene.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Allegra Goodman comes through

I still don't get why Ms. Goodman cluttered up The Cookbook Collector with so much extraneous story, all the intricate details of boom and bust in particular, but this morning the effort to get to Chapter 22 was vindicated. In a single chapter all was rewarded.

Before that there were occasional tantalizing snippets but they were presented meagerly. Without them I would have given up altogether, but if there had been a few more I would have turned pages eagerly in hope of finding the next one on the next page. I'm guessing she used this as a device, but if so, she walked a dangerous line, particularly for someone who has a sizeable stack of unread library books wafting promise from the bedside.

Thank goodness for Chapter 22.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Freedom and obedience

Yesterday afternoon I worked on character development scenes for my protagonist, and before beginning I prayed. I'm trying to remember to do so before starting any writing work. As I prayed I also thought about blogging about praying, and felt hesitation, wondering if revealing my faith could be a detriment to getting published. But then I heard "No more hiding."

Over the past years I've had to do a lot of covering up of my faith. My home was full of beloved atheists. My office was no place of prayer. My non-profit work would have been hampered by a public proclamation. In this past year of seismic shifts, my Abba keeps reminding me that I no longer have to hide it. That I'm no longer supposed to hide it.

So I step out in faith here and now, confessing with my fingers that He is my Lord. I dedicate every word that forms in my mind and passes through my hands to your eyes to His glory. And I leave the details of what He will do with it to Him.

This is peace and joy indeed.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Will the real illustrator please stand up?

I sent off specs to two potential illustrators for my picture book yesterday. Still trying to figure out if self publishing or co-op publishing might be the way to go for this one... Of course cost is a huge issue, and so am hoping for a starving artist, or a person who is enchanted by the vision and willing to wait for royalties, or some other romantic concept made flesh.

The pictures are crucial for this book. I'm not sure how so many children's authors are able to hand off the text to a publisher knowing that they'll have no input on choice of illustrators, style, etc. Perhaps that's why there are so many author/illustrators in picture book land.

I am grateful to be a person of faith, and can rest in the certainty that the right pairing will be made, even if it takes time. Now I just need more patience...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Initial comments on "The Cookbook Collector"

I began reading The Cookbook Collector 2 days ago, a book that I've been hearing about for some months. So far I'm giving it 2.5 pens out of 5 (pens being stars in my rating system.) I like the concept, but the diffusion of focus across 3 characters is a weak point for me. I'm on page 87 and haven't figured out who the protagonist is yet. The character I have the most sympathy for and interest in is undoubtedly not it.

One part I do like is the timeframe. It's set in the late 1990's, bust. I've been trying to figure out when to set the novel I'm working on, and have been thinking about roughly the same timeframe.

There's been no mention of cookbooks yet. Frustrating given that I'm a cookbook junkie. Am trying to be patient though, certain that cookbooks come to those who wait.

Internet presence continues to unfold

Didn't get much actual writing done today, but DID work on this site, adding in a page for published works, and a link to my other/old blog. Links can be found on the top of the right hand column. I've used Blogger for years and never had such formatting problems as I had on the published works page... probably due to using such a fancy template. One more example of it being better to look good than to feel good I suppose.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dour fiction

I've been noticing a trend in fiction; books which are consistently dour, dark, and without resolution. I'm wondering if these qualities are the current definition of "literary" for fiction? Is a book "commercial" if a protagonist moves from conflict to resolution, from weakness to strength, from darkness to light? Are people less smart, refined, and enlightened if they want to see progress? Does being smart, refined, and enlightened require assualting yourself with hopelessness and a belief that life essentially sucks?

If so, I guess I'm doomed to be a commercial writer.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mary article

Just sent off an article about Mary's annunciation being the first Eucharist to Canticle Magazine. We'll see...

Commercial vs. literary fiction

I've been reading a lot of fiction, aiming for decent stuff but ending up with a mix. Trying to figure out the line between commercial and literary fiction. I think it might be one of those nebulous things like the point at which dusk turns to darkness.

Recent titles have included White Oleander by Janet Fitch, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Anne's House of Dreams (a Green Gables sequel) by Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (still reading), Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay, and Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks.

Obviously Sparks' work falls under the commercial category, and the quality reflects it. (No offense Nicholas.) He's got a knack for coming up with compelling story concepts, but the writing itself is a bit weak, and the character development is shallow.

But what about The Secret Life of Bees? Where does that fall on the spectrum?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Characters take shape

My protagonist is shaping up nicely. The way she looks and dresses came together yesterday, along with why. She's not what I expected, and I like it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Picture book

I've been submitting and querying a children's picture book for the last few weeks. Tiresome business indeed. I think it will end up as a beautiful book some day, a book that parents will love reading over and over again to their wee ones, as those wee ones demand.

It's hard to picture that day at this stage; the day when my vision for the illustrations actually comes into existence. The text on it's own reads like a weak poem. It's a wonder any picture books get picked up given how starkly they read outside the context of their pictures.

If I were more of an artist, I'd do it myself. But I have just enough talent to be dangerous. I'd be just like the person described in that old saw: the person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.

I'm often foolish, but am not completely a fool.

Social media blues

The business of writing in 2011 demands participation in the social media world. Insert heavy sigh... I just spent nearly an hour setting up a FaceySpaces account for this new/old me which was a pain in the butt. Theoretically I should be blogging, tweeting, Facebooking daily, meanwhile keeping up on submissions and contests.

Oh, and by the way, I should be WRITING.

If writers were paid by the hours invested, we'd all be rich.