Thursday, January 13, 2011

Books in our Brain Wrinkles

We all have them. They attached themselves to our curious minds and tucked into brain winkles with their slippers and PJs on. For young readers today, maybe they’re wearing Snuggies.

Think back to your childhood, to that moment you marveled, you wondered, your tear ducts opened, or you held your breathe in suspense. We all have that one book that did it for us, that one book that made us view the force of words in an entirely new way.

For me, in 4th grade, Where the Red Fern Grows was the first book to make me cry. I honestly thought something was wrong with me. I was reading in bed, comfortable and warm. I could hear my family talking downstairs. My world was just fine, but I was bawling over my homework reading. This couldn’t be normal.

In 6th grade, Lois Lowry’s The Giver agitated my vision of the world. I closed that book curious, wanting to know more, wanting to figure out all of the ‘what if’s, wanting to know what was possible… Lois Lowry made me want to be a writer.

All grown up now, I suppose, I look at myself as a writer. How much did these books affect what I write today? If not in style, how did they affect my purpose? Can books read in adulthood shake you to the core like they could when you were a child?

I’d like to create a list of great titles here. Please help my cause. These are the books that made you want to write, that showed you the power of literature. These are the books that we should share with our children and the ones we should explore further ourselves.

I’ll add two more to my list:

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

How about you?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Smell-o-vision Novel?

The aroma of imagination can sometimes smell like Hawaiian sweet bread and cranberry stuffing, Thanksgiving turkey, and homemade apple pie. Today was a blissful day as I prepped my recipes for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. It wasn’t just blissful because I was avoiding the papers stacked up by my desk that needed to be graded, but it was blissful because I’m pondering a new book. What better way to brood and mull than while thinly slicing and layering apples into a perfect Thanksgiving pie?

Creation is a process that can feel so wonderful. Today, I watched my recipes move from idea to plan to finished, and I could tell by the way my husband’s head kept turning toward the kitchen that my final products were successful. Why can’t writing be like that?

A hunger pushes us to begin, but a recipe card for the novel you want to write just doesn’t exist. It’s a bit unfair really. Or maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s so gloriously adventurous, so wild, so emancipating, so bohemian… Or maybe that’s just me hyperbolizing to make myself feel better.

This journey that we take to write and to publish is not an easy one. I occasionally have the passing notion to give it up, to wonder about my own sanity to attempt such travails. The self-doubt always passes though. The craving for words always starts once again.

So as I sit waiting on literary agents to profess my brilliance or give me a chance, the new novel brews and bubbles. My summer’s adventures of Hungarian restaurant owners feeding us “house specials” of lamb, chicken, and pork with a side of whiskey at 10 a.m.; of wading through knee-high grasses to reach ancient castles; of torrential thunderstorms that didn’t hold us back – we, the ever-determined tourists; of bolting at full speed through train stations surrounded by every language but our own; and all of our other ventures all discover their purpose now.

Either way, I wish my computer would occasionally emit majestic fragrances of apple pie and Thanksgiving turkey. That way, I’d know that this next idea or that project I’ve been working on for years has the hope of being absolutely delicious.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

And the Characters Take Over...

Isn’t it weird how characters can take control of a project, and you as the writer are suddenly just a tool in process of creation, like a brush in an artist’s hand? This has happened to me many times through the years, but most recently on a revision of my thriller manuscript. There were a few tweaks I planned on making, but as I reviewed my pages, strengthening and tightening my prose, my characters unexpectedly began to flirt.

Maybe sitting untouched and lonely in a computer file for months without any attention led them to personal explorations when I wasn’t looking; maybe they just needed time to grow on each other. A major age gap was abruptly forgotten, as the dialogue dripping from my female lead’s tongue was not that of her age. She had been younger this whole time, and I had pigeon-holed her else-ware. The poor woman was probably screaming at me to ID her this whole time, like a girl on the brink of her 30th birthday buying beer.

But now I know. My characters corrected me. Ages now accurate, love interest defined, they flirted and playfully bantered across my pages, creating a sexiness my manuscript had lacked. What fun!

As an update, I finished my edits today. What version of my novel this is I couldn’t tell you, easily past draft five. Looking back, it seems so odd that I felt proud of my “finished” book in the spring of 2008. It was an accomplishment, but now it’s finally ready. I think… I hope…

Writing: what a beautifully schizophrenic, maniacal process.

Has this ever happened to you?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

For the cold, cozy, curl-up-on-the-couch days ahead...

Now I will sadly admit that a hectic year hasn’t allowed me to read many 2010 book releases. I’m still catching up on 2008 and 2009, as well as working on the biggest release of 2012 (a writer can dream, right?).

But for those of us always adding to our reading list of books we just have to read, I thought the following lists were pretty interesting:

Cold breezes have begun along with those wet nights that make you want to just stay home and curl up on the couch, a cup of tea, and a cozy blanket. Winter is coming soon. After the holiday madness that ensues every year, there are those months of cold, of tucking away from the world with a good book.

I know it’s only November, and I suppose those slow winter days are still far in the future, but after a year of busy, the idea of me, my couch, and some of the above titles just sounds a bit glorious, doesn’t it?

And just in case you, like me, have those aspirations to be on these lists in a few years, check out James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Manuscript Contest:

Happy reading and writing everyone!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why do we write?

(My opening remarks for the 2010 James River Writers Conference:

When I find myself thinking about this conference, and why so many of us are here, I find myself asking why is it that we write? Answering this question is simultaneously simple and impossible, personal and universal.

We write because words make us simultaneously giggle and blubber; we write because we have tiny beings called characters in our heads pounding their miniature fists against our brains as they beg to have their voices heard; we write because when we find words that work well together, we want to marry them on a riverbank on a sunny June afternoon; we write because if we didn’t, we would be pathological liars; we write because we have an odd habit of twisting words like licorice, tweaking, cajoling, poeticizing, intensifying, and making simple sentence structures shine like new; we write because the muse is calling; we write because a book we read in 3rd or 6th or 11th grade revolutionized the existence of literature in the world; we write because we want to be bestsellers; we write because the world needs to know what we have to say; we write because we have to.

Now, maybe you’re one who’s here because when you find yourself in the midst of accomplished authors, you have a desire to pick their brains like monkeys searching for nits of lice. Maybe you’re here because with Scarlett O’Hara as your witness, you will never be rejected again, or perhaps you do not want to go gentle into that good write, Curiouser and Curiouser, indeed, I know, but again, I’d like to welcome you to the 8th annual James River Writers Conference.


Now here's my question for you: why do you write?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Voice of Apple

Move over, iPod, iPhone, and iUniverse. What’s the talk of Apple this weekend? It’s all about writing, voice, and emails.

Have you ever been in a creative writing class and been assigned to write in the style of Falkner? Of Hemingway? Of Austen? Of Dr. Seuss? It’s a great exercise for experimentation and breaking out of your normal writing habits. Now think Steve Jobs. What would his voice be like? Brief, perfunctory, and prosaic is my guess – not that this takes away from the man’s brilliance in other areas.

The story of the weekend is this: emails were sent from Steve Jobs’ email to an unhappy iPhone customer. The electronic messages went back and forth a few times, were brought to the attention of Boy Genius Report and eventually MacDailyNews, and suddenly were the iTopic of the iBlogosphere. Now, whether or not true correspondence existed between Steve Jobs and the occasional customer, happy or disgruntled, I would still argue that the personal attention wins Apple some points. Steve Jobs is apparently known to take time for occasional emails like this – brownie points, Steve Jobs, for remembering the power of the personalized written word! – however, not surprisingly, this weekend’s report shows the emails with the Richmond, Virginia customer were not really coming from Steve Jobs.

What does this really mean? Not much in the large scheme of things, in my opinion. We shouldn’t be shocked that a man like Steve Jobs doesn’t take the time to answer every email just like we shouldn’t be stunned that Hollywood stars and D.C. politicians have ghostwriters for their memoirs.

The impact of this story to the writers among us is larger, though. Our skill is necessary. The ability to transform voice, be it in character dialogue or marketing materials, is a talent that can be appreciated, a talent that is needed in the creative and the business world, and a skill that if honed can allow the novel-not-yet-sold authors among us a pay-day and extra practice.

Happy writing, everyone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

La Fin: When to Stop Scribbling

There is that moment when the final sentence has been typed, where the writer sits back and basks in the glory of accomplishment. The seemingly impossible has been achieved. Where others have failed, you have succeeded. The project that gave you sleepless nights, that made you feel schizophrenic when your characters spoke to you, that sometimes produced a drug-like state where words trickled off your finger tips onto the keyboard like you were a tool in the process rather than the creator – that project, your novel, is done. But is it really?

“Finished” is such a fickle word for the literarily inclined. Just because that last line is written doesn’t mean that the project is anywhere close to ready. For someone in that purgatory between finishing the last page and editing the manuscript to a point where an agent pounces hungrily upon it, this poster (, with proceeds going to 826 National (, made me really happy and made me ponder.

To me, there are many levels of finished. There is first-rough-draft finished. There is adding-character-profundity-and-vigor finished; typing-up-loose-plot-points finished; conclusion-of-grammar-and-spelling-check finished; line-by-line-poetic-brilliance finished, (the last I strive for and pray to achieve).

As a writer, when is it time to call the manuscript done, or is it ever time? To all the writers out there, what would you say?