Friday, September 30, 2011
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."
That's verse three in a song Suzanne Collins' character Katniss Everdeen sings in Mockingjay, the third and final book in her Hunger Games trilogy. Though the series has clearly been aimed at the Young Adult reader, these books should be read by everyone. And, yes, you will need to read all three because they are really one bigfatbook. Really, I would wonder how anyone could read just one.
In a video interview at the B&N website, Collins squirms when faced with how to describe what The Hunger Games is about. That's always my favorite question to writers because I wonder how to describe some of my own novel-length works, so the answers help me. Collins finally suggests just reading the first chapter, contending it will answer that question. Ha! (Bet she hates writing a synopsis, too.)
Actually, before that, Collins compares The Hunger Games to the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. I would describe it as having bits of those swirled with the edge-of-your-seat action of a Tom Clancy novel and peppered with a healthy dose of several seasons of Survivor.
Whatever Collins did, she did it gangbusters. The plot is compelling, the setting dynamic, the characters well-liked. The whole shebang moves with incredible speed.
But what's it about really? A possible future for the USA.
That statement alone should scare you. We live in times where the steamroller changes at Facebook appear to engender more rage than the fact our nation is re-experiencing taxation without representation. Those bubbleheads in Washington care more about what is good for their respective parties than about the people they claim to represent. Hello! People are struggling out here!
Our retirement savings have gone poof. Jobs? What jobs? Our young people aren't able to find many, and those they do secure are mostly part-time. Walk through the mall. Most of those employees are lucky to snag 20 hours a week. Health care? They don't have any.
People are being forced to retire, leaving some responsibilities in the hands of the unexperienced and poorly trained. And young people are giving a career in the military more than a passing glance.
So could there actually be a Panem?
Why not give The Hunger Games trilogy a look? Then get back to me.
Meanwhile, I'll be slaving away at the keyboard on book two of my own dystopian tale, more inspired than ever.
"May the odds be ever in your favor."
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
"To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write." Gertrude Stein
As I was thumbing through old issues of the Hellnotes newsletter I used to edit and publish, I came upon this old editorial column of mine, written in 2006. It's still relevant, so I reprint it here, along with an added note at the bottom.
A Day in Hell
The things writers will do to avoid actually writing truly amazes me. It used to be that merely sitting down at a keyboard might afford that lightning strike of… well, writing.
I mean WRITING could happen IF… (circle one below)
… the music playing was (rain-tinkling piano/eardrum-puncturing guitars/manic-producing violins);
… the "special" cup from the (convention/writers' retreat/mom) was brimming with perfectly blended (coffee/cappuccino/tea);
… the reach of (darkness/moonlight/sunlight) was (slithering/stroking/slapping) its way through the (open/half-closed/nailed shut) blinds.
But wait! A writer should read first, right? Reading; writing; more reading; then writing are the stepping stones on the path toward being a better writer. But, read what? The latest bestseller? Something by a friend? Something classic? How about something about writing?
The publishers of WRITERS DIGEST have made a bloody fortune off magazines and books about writing. Authors who have actual books under their belts blog and journal and forum and message about their particular methods and secrets to writing. Some -- Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, David Morrell, Richard Laymon, Tom Monteleone -- even write books about writing books.
Oops! Time to take a break and play a short game. (As is the New Age Writer's Method.) It'll get our writing juices up. Okay, less than a porn break, but indulge me. Would I lie? I'm a writer and an editor and even a publisher. I want YOU, the writer to get cracking, so when I say let's take a break and play, you should trust me. (I'm a Mom, too, did I mention that?)
Let's play a version of MAD LIBS®. Give me these words:
1. A word ending in –ing
2. Book title
4. Book title
Place them in the following sentences.
"This is how I go about (1)." "This is where I went before I wrote (2.)" "I did (3.) years of research on (4.)"
Were your words "writing"; the name of one of your novels; actual years; another of your book titles?
Then you trusted that this piece wasn't about writing.
In writing and publishing, you should never trust anyone. Even your parents. Or children. I'm also a former writing teacher who once gave her class a hundred questions in class to which there were no correct answers. Boy, did that throw them!
Sitting down to a keyboard here in the 21st Century means little. The writer jumps on the Internet, scours the message boards, spews whatever vitriol he cares to because who will hit him and make him stop? His mother? Ha!
A number of those helpful authors in the writing magazine laugh all the way to the bank. "Yeah, that's how I write," they say. The inference is that all you have to do is follow their tried and true method and you, too, can be a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders.
Sadly, it doesn't work that way.
Let me tell you right here and right now that they're holding back. What you read from famous authors in writing magazines and online writing sites is skewed. Yes, that's how THEY write. But THEY are not you. YOU are YOU.
Yes, it may prove enlightening to know how other writers write. On my bookshelf I see books on writing by Bradbury, King, Koontz, Morrell, Monteleone, Gene Wolfe, Joe R. Lansdale, Orson Scott Card, J.N. Williamson, William F. Nolan, Annie Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Edo van Belkom, and the horror Bible, WRITING HORROR, edited by Mort Castle.
Yet, here is their biggest secret. I'm giving this to you today for free. You don't even have to click a link and read through a lengthy piece.
Writing is hard work. Disciplined hard work. 1500 words a day of actual fiction work. A limit on the Internet. Few posts. Butt in the chair; fingers perched above that keyboard; mind engaged... writing. And when they hit a wall -- everybody does -- they figure out what works best for them and they do it. Then they get back to writing.
There is no magic.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
There's a huge difference between wanting to have written and actually writing. It's thrilling/mesmerizing/fulfilling. And a heck of a lot of work.
Find your own niche/methods/discipline, but do it: WRITE.
ADDED NOTE: I failed to mention writers' conferences in this piece, but must add them here. I've attended two and found each to have been worth the money and the time, but... Nothing is gospel. What works for one writer oftentimes does not work for another. It's important to consider and study and evaluate the styles of others, but it's more important and valuable to simply write.
Well, why are you still reading this? Ferris Bueller has already left the building. He's writing, and so should you.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
"Without an enthusiastic reader, a book would die." Henry Miller
I have a small collection of small books. What is common among these cherished treasures, besides their size, is they are each bound in leather. The oldest is my American Ladies Pocket Book, published in 1825. The frontispiece features two ladies in fashionable gowns. Squeezed inside its few pages are a calendar, selected poetry and prose, songs, riddles, rebuses, enigmas, anagrams, marketing tables, and ruled pages for notations. Plus a pocket for money or perhaps rose petals or a love note. Some previous owner has penciled in several recipes.
The collection also includes four plays by Shakespeare, published in 1898, novels by Hermann Melville, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott; a collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne; two volumes of letters of Charles Lamb; a Book of Prayer; and Of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis.
Of course, I have more books I've collected: signed first editions of first novels of a number of authors whose works I love; Books given to me by author friends; Gold Medal paperbacks; random books I've enjoyed; some that showed up in the middle of the night. You know: Books! Lovely, lovely books!
And I don't know what I'd do without them even if I now own a Barnes & Noble Nook e-Reader.
My younger daughter decided since I was a writer and this was the 21st Century, I should ADD to my book reading proclivity the latest trend. She and her Dad gifted me with such this past June to celebrate my birthday.
I was polite and gleefully accepted. (What pushed me over the edge were the two gift cards!)
It's September now, and while I started off slow, and probably a bit hesitant if not resistant at first, I am now fully hooked. Reading seems faster, easier, and, dammit, just as fulfilling as reading a regular book.
Not that I have foresworn my leather-bound lovelies or my sweet-smelling pulpies, but Mama do be likin' de Nook-e!
My Nook library includes a variety of interesting works: novels and short story collections, and anthologies as well as books on writing. Plus, the jewel: the oeuvre of Guy de Maupassant!
(Oh, and several historical romance novels.)
They gave the first one to me free, they did, and, golly Molly, I'm finding Barbara Samuel and Miranda Neville can word-wrestle just fine and dandy, thank you very much. In short, I had a spankin' good time time reading, and isn't that what it's all about?
Or let me remind you:
"A book is magical; it transcends time and space." Daniel Boorstin
I said historical romances!
"Without an enthusiastic reader, a book would die." Henry Miller
Yup! I'm enthusiastic about... about... about those happy endings. And the manners. Yeah!
Truthfully, the women are strong women and the subjects have included breaking down sex, race, religious, and class barriers and prejudices. But with horses and swords and petticoats.
As for electronic reading, I've surrendered, but in a good way, I think. Words get to live on in this new form and the old form isn't dead at all.
Or as my dear Emily once wrote:
I say it just
Begins to live
Next up: An extra five minutes!
Monday, August 29, 2011
Occasionally someone will ask me how long I've been writing, and I tell them it all began because I was a chatty child who was cursed with vivid dreams. One day my mother, who cherished a bit of silence, gave me a sharpened pencil and a little blue notebook. "Don't tell me your dream," she said. "Write it down." I was seven.
But the truth is I was a bit younger when my mother decided my wild stories could be easily translated with fingerpaints to large sheets of white paper on an easel. I was four (and extremely verbal).
Luckily enough, my family moved to a small town from a big city when I was seven, and the local library was within walking distance. I spent a lot of hours haunting that place, searching out every nook and cranny for the best places to spend an afternoon. (And I learned to be quiet!)
While I read a number of authors (Ray Bradbury, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain, James Michener), my early favorites also included a number of women writers and their excellent works: Edna Ferber's So Big, Sue Grafton's Keziah Dane, Mary McCarthy's The Group, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and stories by Leigh Brackett, Flannery O'Connor, and Shirley Jackson.
It was Jackson's "The Lottery" that made me want to be a writer. Her story struck me with such emotion and stayed with me for days and days. I wanted to be able to do that: to strike a cord so strongly in another person that images and feelings would last and last.
Recently, after a run of rereading all of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels and enjoying a full dive into the previously unread writings of James W. Hall, Dennis Lehane, Joseph Finder, Jonathon King, and Michael Koryta, I wondered if I hadn't been short-changing my ink-slinging sisters. Of course, I'd read books by women authors: Margaret Atwood, Poppy Z. Brite, Chelsea Cain, Yvonne Navarro, P. D. Cacek, Laura Lippmann, Alafair Burke, Karen Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, and Jean Rabe come quickly to mind, but...
Well, let me just put the blame on Hank Phillippi Ryan. Her name kept popping up all over. I finally caved and Googled her. Like me, she's a Hoosier. And she writes mysteries. Her Charley McNally series includes four books so far: Prime Time, Face Time, Air Time, and Drive Time. And each one is such a joy to read. Charley has spunk and attitude and deep doubts she'll mess up. Hank's style loosened me up and helped open my door wide to women writers I might never have considered. What a snob I've been. What an airhead.
In the past few weeks, I've consumed most of Barbara Samuel's backlist: Heart of a Knight, A Winter Ballad, A Bed of Spices, Lucien's Fall, In the Midnight Rain, The Black Angel, and Night of Fire. Who knew there were fantastic storytellers in Romance fiction? I didn't. And behind these titles are stories of hardscrabble survivors dealing with age, genre, class, religious, and race prejudices. Abuse. Abandonment. And of course, love. And what's the matter with that?
Writer Ferber said: "I think in order to write really well and convincingly, one must be somewhat poisoned by emotion. Dislike, displeasure, resentment, fault-finding, imagination, passionate remonstrance, a sense of injustice -- they all make fine fuel."
Indeed they do! All parts of that crazy, mixed-up lover of mine: writing.
Next up: I rip my heart out as I admit my feelings for my Nook e-reader.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
"Besides, rereading, not reading, is what counts."
"Let others pride themselves about how many pages they have written; I'd rather boast about the ones I've read."
Since yesterday, August 24, was Jorge Luis Borges' 112th birthday, I had occasion to refresh my memory a bit about his work. It has been a while since I'd read any of his poems, and it was his poems that I'd loved so much in college. In fact, I had the honor of being in the audience when he visited Indiana University many moons ago.
During that period I also wrote, but more fiction than poetry. But the poets I favored included D.H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Stephen Crane. Fiction favorites ran the gamut from Ian Fleming to Harper Lee to Henry James. Hemingway. Faulkner. Bradbury.
I reread Twain's Huck Finn and Melville's Billy Budd over and over again because when I like a book, I tend to zip through it and need to read it again to appreciate the craft. The art.
Which brings me to this chunk of time post-Writers in Paradise Conference to now. Boy, I've read a lot! So much, I'm not sure where to start.
How about with Michael Koryta? He's a fellow Hoosier. I loved his Lincoln Perry mysteries, but The Ridge, Cypress House, and So Cold the River are wonderful reads, too. Then I found Joseph Finder. His new Nick Heller series (Vanished, Buried Secrets) is my kind of cake, and he has stand-alones that rocked my socks off. And speaking of socks... an extra couple of pair were needed to withstand the frigid Russian winter in David Benioff's City of Thieves. This was truly a spectacular story.
I read Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone before I saw the movie. Yes, the book was better. His Death of Sweet Mister is exceptional.
And I haven't even mentioned spending so much time with James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. This was my favorite series read since John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series.
But then two things thing happened:
1. I discovered I was reading mostly male authors. Of course, I'd read novels by Jane Hamilton, Laura Lippman, and Ann Hood prior to attending WIP, but I really haven't given my sisters a fair shot. (Enter Hank Phillippi Ryan and her Charlie McNalley series, and, uhm, Romance writers.)
2. My family got me a Nook e-Reader for my birthday and two gift cards. Yikes!
Next time: Women and the Word, followed by Likin' de Nook-e
Thursday, March 31, 2011
So where have you been, Judi? Good question. Here's my good answer: writing, reading, and sharpening my writing tools. In fact, I've not only sharpened my tools, I picked up a few new ones.
In January, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Writers in Paradise Conference, hosted by Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, FL. In fact, they awarded me a scholarship, for which I am most thankful and honored.
WIP is the brainchild of two gifted authors, Sterling Watson (SWEET DREAM BABY) and Dennis Lehane (THE GIVEN DAY, GONE BABY GONE, MYSTIC RIVER). They dragged in other writers to assist them: Richard Russo, Jane Hamilton, Michael Koryta, Les Standiford, John Dusfresne, and a few others. And for eight days, these fine writers worked our asses off.
I met some wonderfully fine writers and expanded my to-be-read pile. But really what I took away of most value was to trust myself. I had applied initially because even though the manuscript for my first novel-length fiction was finished, I was uneasy about the beginning. After a rather massive rewrite (using those new tools and the resharpened ones), I now know my baby is ready to come out of the bath water, get towel-dried, dressed, and its butt patted as she goes out the door.
So stay tuned!