High Hopes (for Tomorrow)

I had high hopes for today. Writing plans. A concrete goal. I’m flailing because I’m sick. Okay, okay, I’m not THAT sick, just heavy-headed and scratchy-throated enough that serious development work isn’t going to happen. I must be spry of mind for that, so maybe tomorrow then.

matrimonyBut I can blog. I can tell you what I meant to accomplish today. After three intense weeks with the manuscript, I’m letting it sit for a week. So, my goal for the week was (still is?) to start a piece of short fiction — complete a first draft actually. It’s the story I mentioned here. It’s finally collected enough steam beneath it. I’ve got the central premise, the feeling…

Who am I kidding? I don’t have squat, but it does want to get written. I decided that instead of just writing, I’d give novelist Joshua Henkin’s thought process a try. (He wrote his latest novel, Matrimony, over 10 years and 3,000 pages, and though I haven’t read it yet, I’d bet his novel is recommendation-worthy. That said, he’s known for his short fiction.)

Joshua Henkin led a short-story workshop last weekend. It’s ridiculous to think we can learn anything in an hour, so I sat back and kept an ear-out for soundbites. Those little bits of insight that could help me with my process or simply get me thinking outside my box. Henkin provided the following handout, which might be a helpful spur for you, too.

Questions Joshua Henkin posts above his desk

1. What is the journey my charactes are taking?

2. Why am I telling the story today? What’s special about today — what makes it different from all other todays? (Addendum: May be confusing. This is from the protagonist’s point of view: What’s the urgency about today versus other todays in the character’s life? Why story being told now? Answering this can help pinpoint the character’s journey.)

3. Who is the protagonist, antagonist?

4. What does my protagonist want and what does s/he think s/he wants (often different)?

5. What will protagonist do to achieve these wants and who/what are the obstacles?

6. What important choice(s) is my protagonist making and with what consequences for him/her or others?

None of this is mind-bending, yet I’ve never gone about brainstorming like this before writing a short story. Today, I’d planned to give these questions a try — like an experiment. Tomorrow I shall do so, I promise!

Do any of you engage in this type of story development before you write (short fiction)? Is your process as concrete as going through a list of development questions? How much do you know before you write your first draft?

Halloween Reading Challenge

(For those reading this looking for my free-for-all Friday post: Please check back on Saturday!)

Halloween is here, and I forgot that I’d signed up for a reading challenge called RIP III. It’s good bookish fun through Halloween, and I joined in because I had the perfect book: Elizabeth Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles.

I hadn’t read a spooky book in awhile, so this was perfect.

Yet, I do have a history with scary fiction. I read my first Stephen King when I was 14, and thereafter spent the rest of adolescence terrifying myself.

I just had a memory: My mother, who was never one to give gifts outside birthday and Christmas, enters my room one night. Picture me cuddled on my waterbed (because I was diagnosed with scoliosis, I swear!) perhaps reading “The Exorcist” or the latest Peter Straub. “I thought you might like to give this book a try,” she says, and hands me a collection of humorous short stories. Humor?!?! I was so far from humor you might as well have nominated me poster-girl for hormonally induced angst, moodiness, and depression!

So, yes, I have a history with the creepy, but I don’t read them much anymore. I’m glad to say that Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles led me through her haunting northwoods universe with a ton of artistry and no gratuitous shlock.

The creepy factor is enhanced by her minimalist writing style. Disappearing children, killer wax statues, murderers, and mermaids inhabit her universe with the same quiet poise as her grieving mothers and college students. It’s all the same reality, and this is a big reason for the creep-factor.

As the cover states, The Northwoods Chronicles is a “novel in stories.” I liked meeting and re-meeting her characters in different contexts. I also liked that she preferred ambiguity over perfect plot bows.

I’ve been interested in the concept of linked short stories for awhile. Reading Engstrom’s novel in stories, I realized that she made it look easy. The secret, as she told me, is to create a full-fledged universe. Her universe fascinates.

(Okay, writing this in front of the telly, Thursday night. Just flipped the channel and found “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Talk about memories: midnight showings, yes, during high school. You’re probably not surprised to know that San Francisco loved its Rocky Horror midnight showings!)

My Love Affair With Bookshops

I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening…like a light in the midst of the darkness.
                                                                                       –Vincent van Gogh

I’m lucky, living in Portland. This little-big city is alive with culture — food and music and art and fashion (believe or not, we have fashion week) and one of the best independent bookstores in the country: Powell’s.

I’m fond of Powell’s, don’t get me wrong, but my favorite bookshop is my neighborhood venue: Annie Bloom’s Books. It’s small and intimate with handwritten signage all over the place: Staff Favorites, New and Notable, Recommended. Unlike Powell’s, which is a tourist attraction and multi-level warehouse with a kazillion ever-changing college-student employees, the Annie Bloom’s staff knows books and welcomes us readers in with smiles and hellos. Since space is at a premium, they choose their books carefully. There’s even a shop cat.

On Saturday night, I went to Annie Bloom’s’ (there’s a punctuation question for you — add another possessive apostrophe?) 30th anniversary reception.

THIRTY years! A neighborhood bookstore that’s still alive after 30 years!

I wore my name tag and spoke to the curly-haired bookseller who organizes the readings. And, of course, I had to buy a book. I picked up a most appropriate and pretty little paperback called The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, opened to a random page, and read this:

“Decades ahead of other book retailers, Upstart Crow’s owners had created something of a theme park, where the atmosphere…was as much a draw as the merchandise…and summoning the tradition of the English coffeehouse–shades of Dr. Johnson, The Tatler, those who made the eighteenth-century coffeehouse an institution–Upstart Crow brought the first espresso bar to our neck of the woods.”

Talk about a serendipitous moment. The “our neck of the woods” was my hometown of Mill Valley, California, and I remembered Upstart Crow. In fact, my love of bookshops (not to mention coffeehouses) started with Upstart Crow back in high school. I thought I was so sophisticated and intellectual hanging out there. That’s where I discovered the smell of new books. I’d crack open the spines and sniff away. If anything, all that inadvertent glue-sniffing solidified my love of books.

Where did your love affair with bookshops start?

I’ll end on another quote from Buzbee:

“Books, I knew then and now, give body to our ideas and imaginations, make them flesh in the world; a bookstore is the city where our fleshed-out inner selves reside.”

What’s in a First Sentence?

I’ve been meaning to analyze first sentences for awhile now. I don’t know why except that I still hear annoying writers-conference voices in my head telling me that I’ve got to hook the reader with a wowza first sentence.

But, let’s think about this. By “reader” most instructors really mean agents and editors. In the real world, do you depend on a novel’s first sentence to entice you into it? Or the flap copy? I go by flap copy if I don’t know the author’s work.

To start, here are the first sentences from my four unsung novels — please note, in various states of draftiness(!).

When the doorbell rings, I duck under windows that are oiled for easy escape.

Later, Marcus Tully will overhear snippets of conversation about Liam the Matchmaker’s birthday party, not to mention rumors about a most shocking death.

Circling around the Marin Headlands from Bodega Bay and Stinson Beach, hills smelling of anise and sunburned grass undulate in a slow descent toward a favorite pot-smoking spot called the Bunkers.

On a Tuesday afternoon, mid-September, locals marked the day fog followed Gray Man down a rural lane near Lisfenora village.

Now, here are ten first sentences off my bookshelf. I chose mainstream novels at random, some mysteries, some not.

Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

–Prologue, Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen

Last week I found a letter from you.

–Prologue, The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill

The lake in my dreams is always frozen.

–Prologue, The Lake of dead Languages, Carol Goodman

I spot her as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor.

–Chapter 1, Origin, Diana Abu-Jaber

A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas.

–Chapter 1, The Flanders Panel, Arturo Perez-Reverte

It was November.

–Chapter 1, The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

This story begins in a city of bones.

–Prologue, Sepulchre, Kate Mosse

Terry Hewitt had never been as afraid as he was now.

–Chapter 1, Slip of the Knife, Denise Mina

Later, when it was over, he cast his thoughts back to that sunstruck May day in Cambridge–where it had all begun–and asked himself whether he would have done anything differently, knowing what he now did.

–Prologue, The Savage Garden, Mark Mills

If Ignaz Stapel hadn’t been so afraid of his father, he would have reported the incident and perhaps saved the lives of all the people who were to die as a consequence of it.

–Prologue, City of Shadows, Ariana Franklin

As an afternote, from one gynormous commercial blockbuster:

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the valuted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

–Prologue, The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
(Don’t hate me because this is on my shelf!)

And from one Pulitzer Prize winner:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

–Chapter 1, The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Do I come to any conclusions? Not really except that I need to work on mine some more. Some came within prologues, some not. First person, third, and omniscient.

Some of the first sentences are surprisingly simple — that’s the big thing I take note of for my writing. All in all, most of them give intriguing hints of mysteries/conflicts come, don’t they? On the other hand, seems to me that in the world of publishing novelists, anything goes for a first sentence.

Dan Brown’s is the least interesting to me even though, supposedly, as a commercial thriller , it ought to have the most wowza-hook of an opening. It lacks the finesse of the previously listed mysterioso beginnings.

What do you think? What are some of your first sentences?

Free-For-All Friday: Fun Bookish Meme

I like the idea of writing a fun Friday post, possibly one that’s interactive, or maybe one that contains random stuff or a weekly round-up (which were Friday memes that went around at some point). I did this for awhile. Maybe I’ll do a Friday-something again for awhile (but probably only for awhile because I’m no good with routines).

I’ll call these my Free-For-All Fridays so as not to confuse them with other memes (not that this is a meme — but it can be, I suppose — anything goes).

Saw a meme on One Word, One Rung, One Day. Goes like this: What’s the closest book on hand — no thinking about it! If there are many, choose one at random. Turn to page 56 and cite two to five lines. Tag people if you want. Cool way to get to know my readers!

My book was sitting under a paper pile on my desk. I’d scribbled Irish-slang notes all over the inside covers. From Tana French’s The Likeness:

I was having a hard time breathing; the air felt too thick, almost solid. One of the flourescents was on the fritz and it gave the room a shimmery, epileptic look, something out of a fever dream. A couple of the big binders lined up on the filing cabinets still had my handwriting down the spines. Sam pulled up his chair to his desk and glanced at me with a faint furrow between his eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything, and I was grateful for that.

What I Will NOT Do in the Next Few Days

Here’s what I will not do over the next few days, or even weeks:

I will most emphatically and deliberately and stubbornly not read over the short story I wrote for a 9/30 postmarked deadline. No way. Because when I read it — which I will, but just not in the next few days or weeks — I will find typos and I will find horrendous prose and awkward transitions and plot flaws plus faulty character motivation ambiguous turns of phrase murky backstory…

The thing’s barely a second draft, but I submitted it anyhow. How’s that for silly?

Here’s how it went down:

Friday night, 9/26: Re-met various workshopping friends, one of whom recently acquired a small press. Said small press periodically publishes themed anthologies. The current theme: addiction.  I hear: Lisa, surely you have something sitting around that you can submit. Lisa, anything can be an addiction.

I dismiss the thought because I have nothing addiction-related sitting around.

Saturday, 9/27: Yet, I can’t help myself: I ponder…addiction, addiction. Perhaps retool that cool novel scene, the one between mom and daughter in a hair salon? You could say the daughter is addicted to her misery…nah, stupid idea.

That night, I feel a glimmer of something. A brand-spanking-new idea. Something a little twisted…

Sunday, 9/28: Glimmer is now a spark. Could be, could be. Sit at a picnic table with my trusty index cards and brainstorm until I have a semi-solid grasp of the story — at least I know the ending. That’s always a good sign. If I’m going to write this thing — feeling the pressure now because all of sudden I must make deadline — I must forgo further canoodling.

Write the first five pages that day. Don’t sleep well that night. The story needs at least another ten pages. Yikes!

Monday, 9/29: Hammer out the rest of the story in 11 pages. I’m a mad fiend at the computer. Don’t eat all day. Worrying that the story is over-the-top and unrealistic in a bad way because that’s what happens when the verbal does its vomiting. And what is it with my protagonist who turned into a Romanian immigrant? I let the worries go because, well, I’m just about out of time.

Stay up too late in bed with a printed copy and jot initial revisions.

Tuesday, 9/30: Deadline day! I must be nuts. I work through my revision notes which compel other revisions all the while eyeing the clock and ignoring the dog scooching her butt across the carpet. Don’t eat all day again. Doing my best here with cuts (not enough I’m sure) and rearrangements…And then I force myself to stop with that and read the story aloud because that’s what really helps. I leave time to read the story aloud a second time because that really helps. Feeling the stress now, the second read-through is too fast, know I’m missing things — and typos — yeesh, typos! — but I have to quit now.

Arrive at the post office with 30 minutes to spare (darn, did have time to slow down over the last scene after all) and want to melt I’m so relieved.

Aaaaaaah. Did it! And the challenge was good for me. Just what I needed, get the blood boiling, shake myself up…aaaaaaah.

Afterwards? Wine and bubble bath? Beer and friends? Wish I could say so. Instead, off to the vet to get the dog’s anal glands expressed. Ah well, perhaps a fitting end to a day in which I’d attempted to grow a story out of a “shitty first draft” (to quote Anne Lamott).

RIP III: Spooky Reading

Saw this on Literate Kitten’s blog: There’s a reading challenge in process called RIP III. It’s good bookish fun through Halloween, and I decided to join in because I have the perfect book: Elizabeth Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles.

I admit that my reason for joining an online reading challenge is to pass the word along about her newly published novel. Anything to help a friend!!!

I also look forward to reading the book reviews from the other participants. They’ll be posted here.

Here’s the starred Publisher’s Weekly review to entice your interest:

“Dark fantasy writer Engstrom (Black Leather) starts on familiar ground, but rapidly turns this ‘novel in stories’ into a genre-blending exploration of love, aging, grief and sacrifice. In Vargas County, children under 12 occasionally vanish, but the locals have long viewed this as a tithe taken by the town in exchange for the happiness of the other residents. This theme is explored directly in stories like ‘House Odds,’ in which real estate agent Julia has to decide if her grandchildren would be in greater danger in town or away with their drunken father. Other tales merely use the disappearances as a backdrop, such as ‘Skytouch Fever,’ in which aging Sadie Katherine is forced to choose between her steadfast beau and a rakish visitor, and the wittily ironic thriller ‘One Quiet Evening in the Wax Museum.’ Fast-paced, melancholy and beautiful, the overarching narrative binds a collection of good stories into a superb if unconventional novel.”

What’s on Your Summer Beach-Read List?

(Last time I got seriously sunburned:
Panama, 2004. Second degree on my feet!
Don’t be fooled by the smile; I’m in
pain. –> )

Never mind Memorial Day, for me, the summer season officially kicks off when I get wind of my first beach-read recommendation list. Yesterday I received my sunny signal from NPR’s “All Things Considered.” You can read more about the commentator’s summer picks here.

In proper sound-bite fashion, the commentator restricted her list to books about the beach. I was never a huge beach person myself — got that fair and freckly skin to worry about. So, here’s my non-beachy beach-read list. Just a start, mind you. Novels I happen to have on hand.

1. Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

2. The Mercy Seller by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

3. The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

4. The Gathering by Anne Enright

5. Careless in Red by Elizabeth George

6. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

 I’m always looking for recommendations. What’s on your beach-read list?

Plugging Another Novelist: Patry Francis

theliarsclub.jpgThanks to BigD for pointing me toward Patry Francis’ popular blog. Her debut novel, The Liar’s Diary, just came out in trade paperback, but she is too sick to promote it. Her blog is worth reading, and her personal story, courageous. However, what moves me to write this quickie post is that yesterday was The Liar’s Diary Blog Day. Check out Backspace, The Writer’s Place for the scoop on an amazing example of how the Internet can band people together in a life-affirming and inspiring way.

Her novel, by the way, sounds most intriguing. I’m gonna have to read it (poor little old me).

Okay, back to my writing now!

Hey, How’s Your Novel Doing?

It must be the time of year, because I’m feeling extra annoyed. Just now, the Mysterious Mr. M sent me an email in response to Monday’s post. He empathizes with my rejection agitation because he’s currently in search of a literary agent and received a thanks-but-no-thanks letter from an agent he liked.

In this agent’s rejection letter, she mentioned that editors are running after legal thrillers, zombie detectives, and urban fantasies (which means what exactly?). So, I’m annoyed on his behalf and extra annoyed at the moment because his email got me thinking about a conversation I had earlier this week.

This conversation mimics dozens upon dozens that have come before it, and it goes something like this:

Person I haven’t seen for awhile and don’t know well: “Hey, how’s your novel doing?”

Me: “Uhm, well, I finally landed an agent not too long ago and…”

Person, smile faltering: “Oh, I thought for sure your novel would be published by now.” (Or some variation of this theme with the unsaid thought: How hard could it be?)

Me, in my head: !!$#!%&!!!!

It’s true that hundreds of thousands of books are published each year. What outsiders to the publishing industry don’t understand is that the number of publishing slots available for debut novelists is tiny, in large part because book publishing is like any other big business: going after the surefire money as often as possible. Not huge on risk-taking, those multinational multimedia conglomerates.

Plus, seems like everyone with a computer is writing. Agents are inundated with crap, and even if a talented newcomer makes it out of an agent’s slush pile — not a given — he or she is likely to get rejected anyhow because of market trends. This is Mr. M’s current plight.

I’m one of the lucky ones who made it past slush and into the hands of an agent who believes in my work. And I do mean it when I say “lucky” because, given talent, sometimes it’s only luck that differentiates the published from the unpublished, or the agented from the unagented. (Actually, with some books talent was obviously not a factor, but this is a rant for another time.)

I don’t bother explaining all this to people who ask, “Hey, how’s your novel doing?” Instead, I sometimes want to wonder aloud why in the realm of creative pursuits, it’s considered easier to become a working novelist (by this I mean no day-job needed) than, say, a working painter or a working musician.

Frankly, I think we creatives who are truly going for it must be a crazy bunch. But we gotta do what we gotta do, right?