Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Michael Vick

I’m wrestling with evil. Not literally – my soul is fine, thank you. But in my work. I find it difficult to create believable evil characters. When I try to touch evil, I fall into caricature. Ugh.

It’s only recently that I’ve recognized that my “bad guys” are lacking evil. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a person or an act evil.

Today, I’ve been listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR. The subject was Michael Vick. The guest was making a persuasive argument for Vick’s rehabilitation. But it was missing a key element in the way it defined Vick’s crimes.

I have heard people argue that men can beat their wives and girlfriends and suffer less hatred than Vick has. I have heard people, like this guest, say that murderers are more easily forgiven. I say yes to both, and I’m okay with that.

Here’s why. I am a dog lover, but I am offended when a woman is compared to a dog. No, what Michael Vick did was akin to killing a child. Dogs and children are helpless; we are their masters, their caretakers. It is particularly heinous to kill that which looks to you as God.

That is evil. I don’t know if Michael Vick is reformed or not. I cannot see into his heart. But his actions were motivated by a different kind of evil than that which propels a person to kill another person who is an equal.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On Writing Like a Crab

Approaching the computer to put in some time on my fiction should get its own special on National Geographic. I feel I must look like a crab going to war - coming at the thing sideways and quickly, then stopping and posturing aggressively before settling into hand to claw combat with the keyboard. I enjoy it when I get going, and it makes me a better person. But damn, it's hard.

I am lucky to have two on-going freelance jobs right now that I love, that do some good in the world, and that almost pay the bills. So why do I keep writing fiction? I seem to only be able to snatch an hour during the week for it and a few hours on the weekends. And I feel like I am always working.

While in this doubting frame of mind, I came across a few sentences I wrote a while back on why I write. It helped me to read them:

"I’m interested in how people become who they are. How their choices and reactions to events over which they have no control affect their next choices and next reactions. How their mistakes and successes and other people’s mistakes and success form them. And if we are really trapped by our childhoods."

That doesn't sound too shabby. I better get back to it.

I think for work to work, it needs to have a purpose. Otherwise, it just feels like business. It's easy to lose sight of the purpose as we go through the motions of life.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Art's Time and Place

When we used to live in Atlanta, Rob had to regularly go out of town for work. Often when he was gone, I would perform radical surgery on something in the yard. Once I climbed up the evergreen in the sloped front yard and started hacking at branches with a saw. I only got a few bruises when I fell.

Now we live in Charlottesville and while the yard still needs plenty of work, I am older and less prone to spontaneous tree pruning. And the saw is a little dull. So the next best thing to occupy my restless self is moving art around. We have so many nail holes in the walls of this house, we probably will have to hang new drywall if we ever want to sell.

Of course, this new habit may be due to the fact we owned an art gallery for three years (the image above is from our gallery) - but wherever it comes from, I like the results. You need to look at different work at different times. Your mood affects what your eyes see. And with winter coming on, I want to be able to see our pieces that reflect the natural world. In the summer, when the natural world is all around, I want artifice, surrealism, weirdness. What I want to see from my couch simply varies with the seasons. Some people are probably more constant (and boring), but I am not.

I think this principle applies in a way to reading as well. Justin Cronin's new book The Passage has been sitting on my bedside table as I have gone through three other books. It's not the right time to tackle his huge adventure story. I've been in the throws of revising my own book, and I want to read books that I can analyze. I want to read The Passage when I can lose myself in it totally and completely, not when I am reading to make my own work better.

Think about where you are pick the art you need to soothe or enliven your soul as the case my be. In other words, it may not be a bad book, just a bad time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

So True

From Michael Chabon: "[F]ailure instructs the writer. Every novel, in the moments before we begin to write it, is potentially the greatest, the most beautiful or thrilling ever written … Our greatest duty as artists and as humans is to pay attention to our failures, to break them down, study the tapes, conduct the postmortem, pore over the findings; to learn from our mistakes."

Reporting for duty!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

72 Words About 72 Hours in So Cal

Relentless sunshine
Ocean swimming. Brrr.
Friends who are happy
1967 light blue Corvette
Kelp and sharks look alike
Surfers make me feel so uncool.
Fish tacos and beer in a dark bar on a sunny day
“Another beautiful day in San Diego”
Borders on everything and nothing
So Cal is action. No Cal is thought.
The soul knows what it wants, but what does it need?

(The photo is from Manhattan Beach)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Integrated Life is Worth Living

I bet many or even most of you already know about the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Apparently, there was some buzz that he was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, but it went to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. I’m sure he deserved it too. But as for Murakami. Wow. With spare, clean writing, he tells stories of deep imagination and sensitivity. I was introduced to his writing by Meredith Cole, a writer and the wife of Peter Krebs, an artist Rob and I represented when we had our gallery. I will be forever grateful for that gift.

It would be impossible, I thought after reading his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to ever have anything in common with Murakami. Then I heard he was a long distance runner and published a book of his reflections on his sport and his writing: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I was going to buy it, but I forgot about it in the crush of life. Then I saw this book one night when I was working the closing shift at Barnes and Noble. My job that night was to straighten the right side of the store. And Murakami’s book was all akimbo in the Sports section on the right side of the store. I read the first page while no one was looking, reshelved it properly and bought it the next day. I would have bought it that night, but we had already closed the registers. I felt like I had discovered chocolate or beer or something equally as wonderful and sustaining and decadent.

Here is the first page:

“There is a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry. But if there really were such a saying, I think one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy. A gentleman shouldn’t go on and on about what he does to stay fit. At least that’s how I see it.
As everybody knows, I’m no gentleman, so maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about this to begin with, but still I am a little hesitant about writing this book. This might come off sounding like a dodge, but this is a book about running, not a treatise on how to be healthy. I’m not trying to give advice like, “Okay everybody, let’s run everyday to stay healthy!” Instead this is a book in which I have gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person. Just a book in which I ponder various things and think out loud.”

Why did this capture me so? Well, three reasons: 1) the prose is magical - pointed and simple and effective, and it has a rhythm to it that you can feel, 2) I’m a runner (and a swimmer and a biker) and 3) I dislike people who obsess over their exercise routines and make it the focus of their conversations with you. So, I guess, Mr. Murakami had me at hello.

The book so far (I'm only at page 55 - but I was impatient to share) has lived up to its promise in my eyes. Murakami writes about running and writing and weaves the two together beautifully. It’s part biography - he introduces you to the journey of his life and the major changes in it - but mostly he explores himself and his art and what it means to be the kind of person he is. It’s not a memoir in the current style, where you had to have something awful happen to you so people who slow down at car wrecks will read it. No, it’s a quiet book. He writes about the solitude of running, the void. This, of course, is where a writer has to go if he or she wants to do anything real. It can be lonely, but for those of us suited to it (and by saying us, I am in no way whatsoever implying that I am the same caliber of writer with Mr. Murakami) it is rich with rewards and strange kinds of relationships. He says it best, of course:

“I can’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense it’s a conceptual type of human relationship, but I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life.”

This is why art is important; I felt a weight lifted off my chest when I read that. My mother always said that a person’s deepest emotional need is to be understood. Reading this book had affected me profoundly; I found understanding in it. He has helped tie the disparate strange parts of my solitary self into something. I am a writer. And a runner, too.

I hope desperately to make someone else feel understood by something I write, because I think these conceptual relationshsips (or virtual relationships, or even brief eye contact with a stranger over a shared experience) are incredibly valuable in a world where we have to interact so frequently with people we do not like or who do not understand us. I think it is possible for me to succeed, probably not on a level like Murakami, but not being able to be the best is never a reason to quit. So I’ll keep writing, keep running, keep swimming and biking. Keep trying to be a good friend to the people I care about. Keep trying to manage the demons. Keep trying to grow up. I think that is what everybody is doing if you stop and think about it. Some are just better at it than others.

You may feel differently. You may think running is stupid, or that conceptual relationships are stupid. You may be a flesh and blood person. And there is a writer out there who will make you feel understood. I know it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cooking and Writing

God, I love to cook. Wait, that’s not exactly true. I like to cook, but I love to eat. And I especially love to eat what I want when I want, made with ingredients I have selected. To get that, I have to cook. And as I said, I like cooking. It takes a lot of time and is tiring on the legs, but it is often a good way to rescue the day from wherever it went off course.

Two nights ago, I cooked my first meal from Molto Gusto, a cookbook by Mario Batali. Batali is a man with confidence, with the courage of his convictions. His recipes are easy to follow and none takes up more than a page of this small-ish cookbook. He assumes some intelligence and skill on the part of his reader. What some people call simple, I call good editing. He mixes flavor profiles I wouldn’t have thought of. Lemon marmalade and olive oil?

The meal (mushroom and tallegio pizza with homemade crust, anchovies and fried bread with spring onions, and misticanza – a salad of arugula with radishes and fennel in a lemon vinaigrette) was amazing. Why? Because: 1) I gave myself enough time to do it all and 2) the recipes were excellent. They embodied the principle that less is more if you counted the number of ingredients. If you considered the flavors, the guiding principle was more is more.

When I think about my writing, I realize that is what I want to do: be minimal with the number of words but also maximize the power of each one.

Cooking and writing are both creative processes but the end result of both often involves sharing. I know you can write for yourself but not if you want to make a living at it. You can also cook for yourself, but really when it’s just me, I have an egg or a bowl of cereal. Writing and cooking are generous activities. I want whoever reads my words to enjoy them like I’m sure Batali wants people to enjoy his recipes. I write for my readers, whoever they are.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Getting Under Your Skin

Last Sunday, heaven equaled a rainy morning plus a Washington Post Arts & Style Section with a cover article about local artists and the books that inspired them. Art and books? Wowie – zowie! That’s the kind of news I like.

While I was slightly and unfairly disappointed that each profiled artist wasn’t transformed by a work of fiction, I was still thrilled that books of any flavor had inspired them and had affected their art. But it didn’t occur to me to consider which books had affected my art until I read the article on the next page about Kathryn Stockett. Stockett wrote The Help, a novel set in 1960s Mississippi and told through the viewpoint of a black maid. Stockett is white. And she has received some criticism for “stealing” the black voice and profiting from it.

The Help has sold nearly as many copies as Eat, Pray Love, or so it seems. I’m always happy to see a debut novel sell so well. I haven’t read it, but I plan to. Not so much because the story interests me, but because any book that has found its way into so many readers hands is one I can learn from.

Well, I should probably also read it because the main character in my book Scarred But Smarter has brown skin. Eden Tremay has a half black, half Native American father and a white Cajun mother. I am plain vanilla white, although I try to claim gypsy blood whenever I can work it into a conversation.

Why is Eden mixed-race? My answer has always been that is how she came to me in my imagination. That is just who she is. But why? And how can I dare to write about what I do not know? Well, it came to me after I digested those two articles. As a child, I read and was transfixed and apparently transformed by the book, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I read it in 1978 in Durham, North Carolina. The book was written almost twenty years earlier. Here’s the description from Amazon and Barnes and Noble (www.bn.com): “In the Deep South of the 1950s, journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross the color line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity-that in this new millennium still has something important to say to every American.”

Griffin didn’t just imagine what it was like to experience life in another person’s skin. He did it. I can’t. Or won’t. And many would say it is a different world now. It is. But Eden has dark skin because I want her to. Maybe I want to experience some of what Griffin did only through fiction. I think it will enhance my experience in writing the story and the reader’s experience in reading. Will I get criticism about appropriating a voice that is not my own? Maybe. Probably. I have also written a short story from a man’s point of view, and I got no criticism for that. Although it may be easier to imagine changing sex than race.

I want Eden to be an outsider. I want to give some power to a mixed-race woman. As multicultural and multiracial as America is becoming, the power and the money is still held mostly by white men. That’s what crime fiction does best in my opinion, tip the balance of power and fix the world for a little while.

I’m ready for the criticism. Race is not a huge part of my story, but it poked its head up occasionally. I tried to do the best I could when it did.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

When the going gets tough, go harder.

In order to honor the blog's title, it's time for a swimming post. Late summer is the season for a lot of open water swim races around the world. And for just plain open water swims - where a swimmer with a support boat tackles a body of water by him or herself. No race. The English Channel (brrrr) is one such swim, as is the Catalina Channel (sharks!) in California. These days, the only seems to be a swimmers imagination and wallet.

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming posts daily news (yes, its title is quite appropriate) of the latest of these types of swims by some amazing people. I like visiting the site because of the inspiration it provides. And the videos. Any athletic or creative pursuit requires dogged determination and the ability to give the most when it hurts the most. For example, often when people who have completed the English Channel say some variant of: "Yeah, when I was about an hour from France, the captain of the support boat said I had to pick up the pace or the current would change and I'd never make land." So you've just been swimming for ten hours and someone tells you to swim faster? And you can? Wow. My hat is off to you.

Or maybe swimming freestyle is too boring and you want to do four laps of the San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, one each of butterfly, backstroke, breastroke and freestyle? The Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Butter, Back, Breast And Free In The Open Water:

These are regular people, albeit talented and hardworking regular people. Not freaks. They are doing the possible, not the impossible. I'll think about all that the next time I want to quit. The next time I think that writing three pages is enough for the day or swimming one more lap would just be too hard.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing Advice, part 2

The editing process is equal parts joy and pain. That may be true of all writing, and possibly true of life in general, but that's too heady a subject for a Friday afternoon.

Lately, though, I've had help with editing, or at least with a certain facet of it. A voice sounds in my head whenever I am struggling with how to add something I need to a pararaph that seems full. I don't remember where I first read or heard it. So I am paraphrasing, but this is the essence of what the voice tells me:

"You always have to be willing to let a good sentence be murdered by a great sentence."

Isn't that great advice? It is full of action and violence and hope and victory. I love it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lead Dog

I am fascinated by dogs and Alaska, so when I stumbled across the story of the 1925 Nome Serum Run , I was inspired to start a story:

It’s so cold my paws are frozen. My fur has icicles dangling from it. They clink together as I run. So cold. But I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I am in charge. Once the man gives the command to go, I am totally in control. Until he gives the command to stop. In between, it is me. All me. I can’t think about stopping. I have eight dogs behind me. They need me as much as the man does, if not more.

It smells like death. I can’t investigate. But I want to, and I’m hungry. The ground is so uneven all of a sudden. I can feel the sled twisting. I have to control it. I know the man is helping, leaning and righting the sled. I can’t see him, but I feel him. And I know he is good. We don’t usually go this far or until we are this cold. Something must be wrong. I will go on. I will go until we stop. But I am getting tired. I can’t see as well. The icicles are hurting my eyes. I can close them for a few seconds once we get to the field ahead. Or is that water? I think it is a frozen lake. Yes, it smells like that. I can’t close my eyes there. I must look and smell and feel for good ice and stay close to the shore. If I can tell where the shore is.

Am I pushing her too hard? Sam wondered if he should stop. He was frozen and knew Bear, his precious lead dog and the smallest of the pack, had to be cold and nearly dead from exhaustion. He could tell by the sun’s position low in the sky that they had been going for at least eight hours. His back was killing him. He knew all the dogs wouldn’t survive this cruel marathon. Was it worth it? He couldn’t think like that. This was his job, and he had to finish it. The lake was ahead. It would be good to get out of the forest where the branches hit him in the head, but the lake held its own dangers. He trusted Bear, though, and knew she could get them through this. The rest of the team was quiet and focused. They were too tired to bark, but their passage startled an arctic hare out of hiding. One of the younger dogs, he couldn’t remember his name now, tried to snap at the hare, but was yanked back into line by the forward momentum of the group.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August's Experiment

Although the last time I took a science class was early in the Reagan era, I’m going to conduct a little scientific experiment.

I can be quite a negative person. Pessimistic. Sardonic. Sometimes even misanthropic. Irony I love so much I would marry it if I didn’t already have such a wonderful husband. I don’t really mind it, it’s who I am, but sometimes the negativity gets out of hand. So, for the month of August I’m going to try and refrain from hating things. It will be hard. I like to hate things. I like to talk about the things I hate with my husband and friends. We hate the same things, usually. It’s a bonding experience.

I want to see how a month with fewer negative thoughts will affect my creativity. Since I’ve finished Scarred But Smarter, I’m going to work on a short story then on a second book called Black Damp. I need to get a lot of work done, so I can no longer allow myself the luxury of rolling around in the toxic soup of hatred, which I do quite like, as I mentioned.

So, in an effort to purge the negative, here is a list of the top ten things I hate and cannot think about until September:

1) August. Yes, the irony is thick enough to cut with a knife. I love irony.
2) My cat Jekyll (see photo of my writing partner a few posts ago), for two reasons. One, she sits on the back of the couch and claws my scalp when I’m watching tv. Two, she plucks my post-it notes off my work and carries them around the house in the middle of the night, squawking as if she wants to go out. When you get up to let her out, she hides. Grrrrr.
3) People who own dogs but don’t know how to take care of them properly. And don’t care.
4) British Petroleum
5) Not living in Santa Cruz, California.
6) Still being a mediocre swimmer after years of work.
7) Rob’s inability to get the facts right in a story he’s telling me – that I’m really interested in.
8) My mother’s cancer doctor. It’s complicated.
9) Drivers who buzz me when I am on my bike. I understand they may be annoyed that I am sharing the road, but will killing me really make them feel better?
10) Poison ivy.

Ah, that felt good. If anyone wants to join me, I’d love to read your list!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Elevator Pitch for Book

Every writer has to have an "elevator speech." Shoot, probably every artist does. Anybody who's selling something, in fact. But distilling 87,000 words into one or two sentences is hard. In an effort to hone my pitch, I'm going to ask you to come on an elevator ride with me while you are juggling coffee and a file folder and your backpack and lunch.

Here's my first effort:

Two children with secrets die in vastly different ways two decades apart. In Scarred but Smarter, reporter Eden Tremay carries the emotional scars of the first while she is drawn into the vortex created by the second.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More on Bond, my alter ego....

For some reason, I can't create a clickable link to this website: http://iwl.me/. You can paste a portion of your writing there and see what famous writer the program says you "write like."

This is the piece of writing from Chapter 4 of my novel, Scarred But Smarter, that got me compared to Ian Fleming as noted in my previous post:

(Not sure what I think of the comparison, but it sounds marketable!)

"When I feel guilty and sense trouble, like now, I do chores. I grabbed my basket of dirty clothes and went downstairs to do laundry. The machines are in the back room of the gallery I live above. My apartment occupies the middle floor of old rowhouse which is gorgeous but definitely not made for tall people; I hit my head at least once a week. I have the second floor apartment; the third floor is vacant and had been since I moved in three years ago. It is wonderful not to have to listen to anyone banging around up there. My landlord Kathleen owns the gallery and the building, as well as the one next door where Leo lives. She is a fantastic landlord - quick to call a repairman if something needs fixing, she hasn’t raised the rent in three years, she loves Stella, and I like the art in her gallery. All in all, it is a pretty good living situation. The icing on the cake is that I get to park my 1966 Corvette snug and dry and safe in her garage. Kathleen doesn’t have a car and the garage is too small for any of her artists to use; they usually lugged work around in vans or trucks. The lemon yellow baby is my prized possession, a gift from my mother for my move to D.C. She heard I loved old cars, especially Corvettes. It was a bribe, but I didn’t care. The price she extracted in return was my weekly visit to Dr. Wilma Harper, my therapist. I was willing to pay because I loved that car, and Wilma turned out to be pretty okay too."

Call me Bond, Jane Bond....

I write like
Ian Fleming

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Apparently, I like to very much split infinitives. Not usually that badly, though. I discovered this habit in the third revision of my novel. I wondered how it became a part of my writing, which led me to wonder how anything becomes a habit. So I Googled. Most of what I found in the 15 minutes I allotted myself for this round of procrastination was about adopting healthy lifestyle habits or becoming a winning corporate pawn. (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, anyone?)
I think habits form because there are too many decisions to make in life each day. We can't focus on the important ones if we don't make the majority of our choices by habit or routine. But since choosing what words to put on the page is one of my more important activities, I have to be more mindful. In other words, not lazy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Swimming in Santa Cruz

This time of year, I am desperate for cooler weather. The heat makes me feel like a trapped wild animal, one that could chew off its foot to get out of the trap's jaws. Well, instead of chewing off a limb, I pester my husband about moving to Santa Cruz, California. To his credit, he is also intrigued by the idea, but he thinks we should stay put until I finish my book. He sees this moving fantasy as what it is: procrastination. Well, only partially procrastination. I truly love it on the California Central Coast for a lot of reasons. The following essay may be a little purple in its prose, but it conveys the truth of what I was feeling six years ago on a windy Pacific beach:

The fear tears at my gut. I tell myself that it is irrational. That there is nothing to be afraid of, that I am ready. These thoughts temporarily tame the beast while I walk down the stairs, but I cannot keep my concentration. The sharp jaws pounce at my lapse and resume their tearing as my feet hit the sand.
Because there is plenty to fear. Mankind has survived by obeying such fears. It doesn’t help that the lifeguards are on surfboards and look about twelve.
The fear, rational or not, eventually makes me angry, and I welcome the anger. It distracts me. I’m angry that I’m afraid, because I want to do this. And I’m also angry that I want to do this.
The irony makes me chuckle. If I oscillate between being amused and angry, I think I can get to the water’s edge. My mind, so busy with self-loathing and silent laughter, will have no room for fear. My body, freed of guidance, will simply follow all the other lemming bodies. I want to start soon; I cannot maintain this delicate emotional equilibrium for long.
I know other people are having more fun. They come to California to visit wineries and hunt for movie stars. At home, they go antiquing on Saturdays, maybe take an occasional family hike. I come to California to wait on a rainy, cold beach for my turn to swim in the shark and jellyfish filled ocean.
They call it the Red Triangle, the area from Santa Cruz north. Great white sharks live, breed, play and eat here. The line of my race pierces that triangle.
The gun goes off.
It’s funny how the fear that grips you on shore is different than the fear you swim with. Once I’m in the water, shark thoughts are washed away. I am panicked by the real, not the imagined. I’m hyperventilating because of the cold, I’m tossed by the violent waves as if I have no will of my own, and I’m being swum over by a human wave of faster racers.
The turbulent start becomes a more measured struggle, and I am afraid only that the cold will get worse, that I’m not making forward progress and that I’ll be last. That I want something I can’t have. That it’s not true you can do anything if you just try hard enough. That I’m fooling myself and that I am a fool. That a teenaged lifeguard will have to save me and won’t even think I’m cute. That my husband will be embarrassed. That people will look at me and feel sorry for me. Isn’t that scarier than swimming with sharks?
Something pulls a switch in my brain. I figure out how to breathe to the left so the army of waves coming from the right won’t beat me. Fortified with air, I find a rhythm and pull myself over the waves with arms that have found their power. I am moving through the water, to the horizon. The sea lions are watching with approval from their rock, and the cold water is dense and deliciously easy to grab. It feels like dancing with the best partner in the world.
My anger and fear are long gone, replaced with bursting pride. I feel gloriously alive and privileged to swim in the ocean far off shore with whatever else is below me, to have a body that can work like a fish. The world has shrunk and I have grown to fill it all. I never want it to end; I’m not even cold. I exist just to move forward, faster and farther. My mind is silent, my heart is singing, and my body leads.
I swim until my hand touches the sand as my husband taught me. I push myself up and run like a drunk through the finish chute. Rob is there with a towel and a look so full of love and pride, I know I’ll swim through anything to see that again. I won no award, but I won everything.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Elmore Leonard's Rules for Good Writing

I found this wonderful advice in an article in the Guardian (read the whole piece here:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one). I found the article via a link from my favorite time-wasting website, www.aldaily.com. Favorite next to Facebook, that is.

Here are Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing. They are great rules, I think, and the rules, like all of Mr. Leonard's fiction, are so well written. Of course, I was raised to break rules, but it's good to know them before you do!

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac?ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look?ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ?annoying, especially a prologue ?following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ?under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos?trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri?can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ?Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

(Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing will be published this month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Super Short Fiction

I wrote this piece a few months ago for an NPR contest. The piece had to be short enough to be read in three minutes or less, and it had to start with the first sentence you see below. I think my longer fiction is more plot driven, but my short stories - super short or regular short - tend to be more atmospheric and quiet. Or maybe my characters are more messed up. I think I need to learn how to jazz them up without losing the feeling of negative space I like to create.
Thanks for reading. I hope it goes without saying, but comments and criticisms are very welcome!


The nurse left work at five o’clock. As he had every day for the last five, Henry Middleton watched her walk down the school steps and across the parking lot to her car, an old, banana yellow Toyota Celica. Henry was the new principal at Red Rock Middle School. Celine had been the nurse at Red Rock for the past ten years. On his tour the first day, his assistant principal, Veronica White, told him Celine was trouble and that the parents didn’t like her. She didn’t mind her own business and she overstepped her boundaries, they said. But Henry liked what he saw of Celine as they passed the nurse’s office that first day:

“There, there, Jesse,” she cooed as she mopped the blood running down his shin.
“I want my mommy,” the boy wailed.
“Your mommy’s working sweetie. She’ll be there when you get home, but now, you have to be a little man and take one for the team.”
“What team?” Jesse was still crying, so his words came out in a wet, breathy stutter.
“The team you and your mother and your little sister make. A family is like a team. One little skinned knee isn’t enough to make your mother take time off work. You’ll be fine. I’ll be your temporary mommy until you feel better.”
Jesse sniffed and let Celine tend to his cut.

Every school Henry had ever worked at was divided between those who sided with the principal and those who didn’t. Henry hoped he could make an ally of Celine, without causing trouble with Veronica, who he was realizing he didn’t like very much. He actually hoped for a lot more, but he didn’t dare focus on that. Not now anyway, he had to get home. Friday night bridge was sacred, and Henry’s role as chauffer and general chap in waiting to his aging mother was the main reason he moved to Phoenix.

So Henry slipped the file he was reading into his briefcase and snapped it shut. Then he put his forehead briefly on the smooth black leather to gather strength from its coolness. The air conditioning hadn’t worked right since he got here. He lifted his head and then his body out of the chair with what felt like the biggest effort of his life. He wanted to stay there until Monday morning when Celine came to work at 8 o’clock. Instead, and it seemed lately that every thing he did felt like it was instead of something he really wanted to do, he grabbed his jacket from the back of the door and headed to his car.

Stepping into the bleaching sunlight, Henry could see that Celine was squatting next to her front passenger tire. He walked over.
“It’s flat,” she said as he approached.
“I see that. May I call someone for you?”
“Who, a magic fairy?”
“No, um well, AAA or a towtruck?”
“Mr. Principal, I can manage just fine. I have a jack and a spare tire and a strong back. Thank you for stopping, though.”
Celine went to her truck and popped it open. Henry stood there, irritated, embarrassed and excited all at once. He’d been dismissed, but he was actually talking to her and he was not going to give up.
“Mind if I watch, then? I could use a refresher course on changing a tire.” He smiled and sat on his briefcase.
“Celine lowered the trunk and looked at Henry. “Mr. Principal..”
“Call me Henry.”
“Henry,” she paused, “I think this year will be fun.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Collage has always been my medium of choice if I have to create a piece of visual art. Mostly because I cannot draw worth a lick.
A few months ago, when I was having trouble getting my head around my main character in my novel, I decided to make her a collage. I used bits and pieces from the covers of old New Yorker magazines. It really helped, and here is the result:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing Advice

A few days ago, I ran into a supposed quotation from Franz Kafka: "If you introduce a shark in the first chapter, it has to eat someone by the end of the book." After a wonderful time-wasting search of the web, I could find no evidence Kafka said that. I don't really see him talking about sharks anyway. Cockroaches, yes. Sharks, no. But apparently Anton Checkov gave a piece of writing advice that was similar: "One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

Since I am in the editing stage of my manuscript, it is a nice adage to keep in mind in my effort to pare down the excesses that naturally flow in the first draft, at least for me.

Speaking of guns, I wrote a short story two years ago that introduces a gun on the first page. It's called "Fallout Shelter." Here are the first few paragraphs:

If I were taller, it might have worked. I knew the head and the heart were the only acceptable targets, but my arms just weren’t long enough to point the barrel squarely at either one and still be able to reach the trigger. I thought about sawing off the barrel, but not for long. I’m not even sure we have a saw. I guess I could have tried harder to jury-rig a set up. My one effort was to sit on the floor and put my right big toe on the trigger, aiming and steadying the barrel with my knees and hands. It was a disaster. The barrel was pointing at my left shoulder. I tried to nudge it closer to my chest which made the gun slip out of my awkward embrace. As we toppled, it or I knocked the lamp and the thrash can over and ripped off part of my toenail. Our fat tabby cat screeched and ran for her life from the noise.
I don’t care what people say, suicide is not the easy way out. Even attempted suicide is damn hard. If it wasn’t going to be easy, I wasn’t going to do it. That realization made me laugh, since refusing to take the easy path is what got me here. But I gave up on the idea of suicide anyway.
I put the gun down lengthwise on the desk. It served nicely as a giant paperweight, even though it teetered a little. My desk was cluttered with files and papers that came home with me when I was fired last week. The mounded white pile looked like frosting, and transforming my walnut desk into a chocolate cupcake. The bay window was open letting in a breeze that stirred the leaves of the ficus and would have made hay with the papers but for the gun. I pondered the photos along the back edge of my desk. They were the same as those that graced offices everywhere, except now in duplicate. Two photos of me and Mary, Mary and the kids, and each child separately.
“I’m sorry, Mary,” I said, scanning all the images of her before settling on the driftwood framed photo of us on the beach in Maine. It was taken five years ago, I think. That was the last time we took a vacation together. Not for lack of money or time, but rather lack of desire. Neither of us seemed to want a break from the safe routine of life, until now. “But I did what I had to do.”
Mary and I bought this gun soon after we moved into our first house a whole lifetime ago.

Friday, May 28, 2010

NYU MFA application

Two years ago, I thought about graduate school. I applied to several top programs, including NYU's. I probably should have set my sights a little lower given my age (42at the time) and lack of publishing history. The best I got was a place on the wait list at NYU. But it was good exercise, making me polish several short stories and write five different personal essays. Here is part of one I wrote for NYU:

As a writer, I believe in negative space, in leaving room for the reader to meet me halfway. I want to write fiction that slithers in without announcing itself, but nests in the reader’s psyche for a long time. The importance of work and its relationship to identity is a favorite theme of mine. Specifically, I want to explore further the boundaries of work for my female characters. What are they willing to sacrifice for work? For principles? I also have a strong interest in exploring what home is (geography? family? work? history? landscape?) and how it relates to identity for my characters. All the different ways people can feel at home fascinate me. And why is it so important? These are the main issues engage my mind.
Work ended up a favored theme probably because I have held so many different jobs. Law is the career in which I invested the lion’s share of time, energy and money. In dissecting my failure at it, I finally realized that I had thought law was about finding the truth. But it isn’t. It is about hiding the truth. Fiction was the only place I had always confronted truth. I value my study of law, though, because it did train my mind to look everywhere for answers and at all sides of a problem. And failure is always a good learning experience.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A bit about Piper

Our dog Piper takes off at a full sprint and launches herself off the backyard berm when I throw it. She tucks all four legs tightly under her, stowing them for flight the way a plane retracts its wheels. Sailing into the ivy she wrangles the blue ball from the vines, shakes it a bit and trots back to me.

If due to my tiring arm, the ball bounces before the berm, Piper rears back onto two legs and corrals it with her chest, like a soccer player.

When she is tired, she will leave the zone of play and hide her ball in the forsythia and chew on the branches.

I never had a dog who chased balls. Maybe that is why I am so willing to indulge her. I’ve learned all sorts of different ways to throw the ball so as to not wear out my arm too quickly. I use my left hand, which had a high learning curve. A few throws ended up on the roof. Now Piper thinks the roof spits balls off at its whim.

My Aunt Hazel

My Aunt Hazel, my mom's older sister, died recently. I wasn't able to attend the funeral, so I sent this rememberance. I wanted to share it here because words are the only way people stay alive.
In 1982, when I was 16 and had just graduated from high school, Aunt Hazel generously offered to let me come and stay with her and Uncle Jim for a month in their San Diego home. Or maybe my mom just shipped me off to settle an old debt. I can’t be sure.
Anyway, we had wonderful adventures, and I absorbed some great lessons. She taught me how to pronounce La Jolla, how to eat Mexican food, and how to pick a man. She took me to Tijuana to see a Jai Lai game and to Reno to gamble. She tried to take me to Lake Tahoe, but the mountain road washed out right in front of us. A tree came down the mountain in a torrent of water and just ripped a massive chunk of asphalt from the road and continued down the rest of the mountain. I was terrified. But she just whipped her block-long Cadillac around in no time flat and reversed course. I think I learned a lot about handling adversity on that day.
I’m sure she took me to museums and the symphony and all that cultural stuff. But it’s the junk food, gambling and border crossing I remember. And California lunches – shrimp salad in an avocado half. Mmmmmm. And driving through the desert, getting sleepy from the heat. I don’t think there is another 30 day period in my life I remember with such crystal clarity.
But I should return to the “how to pick a man” advice. I had never dated before visiting California, so I needed some advice. Out of the blue, and unsolicited, as if she had a list she needed to check this bit of advice off of, she told me: “You do the choosing.” She wasn’t wordy with her advice. Thanks to that nugget, I never went out with a man I didn’t want, and I picked the husband I have today. I am so grateful.
She gave me confidence and love and she made me strong. A girl’s mother cannot do that alone. Some other grown woman, hopefully an aunt, needs to pitch in. Aunt Hazel did her niece-raising duty with no evidence of strain. In fact, she seemed to have fun too.
All this taught me how to treat my own nieces. Well, Aunt Shirley was a pretty good role model for that too, but I don’t think she’d mind sharing the credit. And I’ve seen my mom do it for her nieces. But Aunt Hazel did it for me when I was a teenager. That couldn’t have been easy. I have a wonderful relationship with two of my nieces – who of course come from Rob’s side of the family since I am an only child. Rob and I have provided a safe haven for each of them in turn when they needed it, and I love them fiercely just because I am their aunt, and I know my job. They are also wonderful people, but you shouldn’t have to be great people or even good people for family to love you.
I learned a lot from Aunt Hazel, and I will always be grateful to have had the time I did with her. As I grew up, I learned we had different opinions about a lot of things. That caused some friction when I was in my annoying twenties. But we got through it.
I tried to pay her back a little in 2001 when I was on a business trip to San Diego. We went to the Hotel del Coronado and had a spectacular meal. I think I still have a photo from then, but I don’t know where it is. I have it in my mind’s eye, though, and it is how I will remember a woman who was kind to me and taught me so much. Part of how I try and live my life is in tribute for what she did for me twenty-eight years ago.

Undone: A short story

I woke up all at once and in a panic. I couldn’t breathe. A split second later, the ventilator kicked in. The oxygen calmed me. I couldn’t breathe by myself, but a machine was doing it for me. It was not at quite the rhythm I wanted, but I quickly realized it was better than the alternative.
I couldn’t really see anything but light so bright it hurt my eyes. I felt like a creature of the night woken at noon and thrown out of her cave. I was out of my element and annoyed and scared. At least I knew where I was. I had been a doctor long enough to recognize the sounds and smells and feel of a hospital room. Slowly, my eyes adjusted; it became less painfully bright. I wondered how long I had been unconscious. I didn’t think I’d need the ventilator much longer since I was fighting it. That was a good sign. Nobody else was in the room. It was a double room, but the next bed was empty. Mine was near the window; that much I could see.
A nurse came in. Jenny. I knew Jenny. I worked with Jenny. She was good. She took my blood pressure and checked my IV, then noticed I was awake. That gave her a fright. I tried to smile with my eyes. The ventilator hid my mouth and kept me from talking. She looked scared, then tried to smile back. She held up a finger as if asking me to wait a minute. Sure I could wait, I thought. Where am I going like this?
While Jenny was gone, I tried to test myself. I went through the checklist. I knew my name, I knew who the president was, I knew I had a husband and a child and a dog and a cat and a vacation house on the Vineyard. We should be going there next week, I remembered. Okay, I passed. Brain is fine, thank god.
So why the ventilator, I thought. Why the fear in Jenny’s eyes? I am clearly okay. I did some math in my head and recited the opening lines of Ulysses for good measure. Yes, totally fine. I tried to make the machine breathe a sigh of relief for me, but it kept its emotionless, metronomic pace.
Jenny came back with Frank, a colleague of mine. I was glad to see him. I tried to wave but couldn’t. Too many blankets and tubes to disentangle from. It was cold in here.
Jenny stood a few feet away as Frank picked up my chart. “It’s good to see you awake Kate. Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
I shook my head no.
“Three weeks and a day. You had a very bad accident. Do you remember what happened?”
That long? Jesus Christ, I missed our vacation. Did Mark get Cameron ready for first grade? My patients! I had surgeries scheduled…. What did happen? Frank tried to calm me.
“Everything is okay. It makes sense that your memory would be damaged. Mark just left with Cameron, and we had a good chat. Work is getting along fine without you, although everyone misses you. It’s all taken care of. All you have to do is recover, and you’ve come a long way.”
That implies I have a long way to go. But I feel fine, I thought.
“You had a spinal injury.”
Words kept coming out of Franks’ mouth, but I couldn’t hear over the roar in my ears. How could I have not noticed my legs were gone as soon as I woke up? How? Oh god, oh god, oh god. I can’t live like this. I can’t. I started thrashing. I wanted to get away from the news.
“Jenny, could you get a sedative. I think this is going to be hard for Kate to handle.”
As Jenny left, I saw Mark wheeling himself down the hall with Cameron on his lap. No, I’m the strong one, I wailed in the cavern of my head. I closed my eyes.