What is "Doom Eager"?

Lorrie Moore, from "Better and Sicker"
"Martha Graham speaks of the Icelandic term "doom eager" to denote that ordeal of isolation, restlessness, caughtness and artistic experiences when he or she is sick with an idea. When a writer is doom eager, the writing won't be sludge on the page; it will give readers -- and the writer, of course, is the very first reader -- an experience they've never had before, or perhaps a little and at last the words for an experience they have."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

a quick fix - dialogue that packs a punch

Natural sounding dialogue can be a struggle for many writers. To get that "right sound" to your characters' dialogue, try this quick fix:

Write a conversation between characters in whatever way you want; then go back through and strip out words to create shorter, choppier sentences, keeping in the interesting essentials but cutting away the unnecessary "fillers" found in so much "wooden" or "clunky" dialogue. Play around with using contractions and sentence fragments. Ask yourself, how can I say the same thing with less (not more) words? You'll find your dialogue will become faster, sound more natural,and pack a harder punch.

Keep the literary faith, friends. And keep writing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

truthful books

"Truth is not loved because it is better for us. We hunger and thirst for it. And the appetite for truthful books is greater than ever." - Saul Bellow

I think this is true. I feel this is true. We crave truthful books, books that hold a mirror up to our world, within which we gaze and say, "I recognize that." We may emphasize one word or the other (or all in varying degree):
I recognize that.
I recognize that.
I recognize that.
I know where I am. I know who I am. I know the truth.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

musings on point of view

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, "In contemporary writing one may do anything one pleases with point of view, as long as it works." Earlier in the text, Gardner comments on Henry James' claims of the use of first-person point of view in long works of fiction as "barbaric."

In his own book entitled The Art of Fiction, a collection of previously published articles on the craft, novelist David Lodge writes of the subject, "The choice of the point(s)of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions."

I haven't written my own The Art of Fiction but here are some of my musings on point of view:

1. Though I don't find first-person point of view "barbaric," I do find it overused in contemporary fiction, stylistically overindulgent, and a set-up for lazy writing. First-person, in particular, lends itself to "telling" versus "showing" and, firmly rooted in the character's mind, allows for often tedious (and worse, boring) over-narration.

2. Beginning writers, and many established writers, fail to consider carefully the question of point of view. Who is in the best position to tell this story, is a fundamental question that must be considered in the planning stages, not a question to be answered by accepted norms/characteristics of a particular genre or dictated by trends in the market. For me, telling a story is about revealing a truth. Through whose eyes should we see this story? Who can best reveal that truth?

3. The third-person objective point of view is underrated and underutilized. Certainly better suited for shorter works of fiction, the third-person objective vision allows for gaps, or room, in the narration for interpretation of character's thoughts and feelings. As this method of point of view relies only on description, action, and dialogue -- what characters do and say -- the reader feels more freedom to interrupt the text. It is "showing" in its most direct sense. It is the camera's lens.

4. As a young reader in my twenties and early thirties, I used to enjoy omniscient narrators who commented on, even judged, the actions of characters in the story. I even wrote a few, somewhat successful, short stories in that fashion. Now it makes me cringe. It feels like moralizing. In my forties, I no longer want a "God" narrator commenting and judging characters, pointing out their weaknesses and failings. Maybe as we grow older, there is a certain tendency toward understanding and compassion. Maybe it's because I've moved away from organized religion and the "voice of God" narration style feels damning and condemning.

5. Gimmicks with point of view annoy me -- excepts when they work. I've written before about the use of second person by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City and Joshua Ferris's use of first-person plural in Then We Came to the End. I consider them both gimmicks, in a way, but both work and add levels of meaning. By gimmicks I mean such POV mistakes as multiple first-person points of view for no apparent reason (especially retelling the same event over and over, as in the movie Vantage Point) and "mind of the killer" first-person points of view placed within the framework of a larger first-person or third-person limited story (where the only reason for plunging into the "killer's mind" is to shock and scare). Typing this I realize both of these "gimmicks" involve the use of first-person. Another good reason not to use first-person unless the story cannot be told from any other point of view.

I'll end with another quote by David Lodge: "One of the commonest signs of a lazy or inexperienced writer of fiction is inconsistency in handling point of view." This is our craft, my fellow writers. This is our art. Let's not be lazy. Let us consider what a careful examination of point of view can do for our fiction.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

earning an "honest living"

"You must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living." - George Bernard Shaw

My attempts at earning an "honest living" before staying home to write:

movie theatre worker
drug store clerk/pharmacist's helper
retail women's clothing/jewelry salesperson
car salesperson
microfiche filer (worst job ever)
substitute teacher
ESE paraprofessional
high school/middle school teacher
summer camp coordinator
non-profit site director
bookstore owner

Sunday, August 22, 2010

how I spent my weekend

"No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft"
- H. G. Wells

I love editing someone else's writing. A friend told me once it was the perfect job for me. I get paid for telling others what's wrong with what they wrote. Of course, I hope I'm not that crass about how I approach helping others edit and revise, but, I must admit, it does suit me. Perhaps it's all those years of grading student work or my "Miss Know-it-all" attitude, which I have, mostly unsuccessfully, tried to kick over the years.

When it comes down to it, I like helping people learn to write well. I can't say I'm magnificent at it all the time, but it appears to be a skill so many struggle with and are afraid of. It makes me happy when I see them improve or they feel more satisfied with their manuscript. Somehow I believe the world becomes more orderly, more aligned, when I edit.

I spent this weekend editing a manuscript for a healthcare company. Even though it was a rush job, leaving no free time for leisure pursuits, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I get off using the Word Track Changes function. What weird creature am I?

Friday, August 20, 2010

short stories in the fiction market

It's no secret the fiction market is changing. With the ever-lowering price of e-book readers, efforts by online retailers to squeeze out agents and publishers, and falling stock prices of the big box booksellers, what sells and makes money in the fiction market is becoming narrower and narrower. I once read in a feature article in The Writer's Market that trying to make a living as a poet ensured a life of poverty . . . or, something to that effect. I used to buy collections of poetry. I can't remember the last time I did. Sadly, the reality of a shrinking poetry section in most bookstores is commonplace. It seems, more and more, the same can be said of the short story market.

Kurt Vonnegut once remarked, "This country used to be crazy about short stories." I think those days have passed. Recently, I hunted in the latest Writer's Market for magazines to submit short fiction for the YA/teen market. Not counting faith-based magazines, there were four listings, only one of which paid any amount worth considering if one actually tried to make a living selling short stories. The current feeling is one has to be a sought-out writer to get paid any decent amount for a short story, meaning the writer is already a decently-paid novelist.

Flash fiction and short story fiction appears to be most appreciated and published in online e-zines. There are some fantastic online literary magazines out there, but most of the ones I've run across pay little to nothing. Like most online content, the general public feels it should be free.

I can't say I don't contribute to the decline in the short story market. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a recent short story by Katherine Dunn, one of my favorite writers, in The Paris Review. Online, I could read the first few pages, but to read the rest of the story, I had to order a copy. I'm not against paying for content, but looking through the remainder of the magazine's content for that issue, Dunn's story was the only thing I was eager to read. Or, pay $15 bucks, for that matter.

I'd love to see a website similiar to ITunes, where I could download one short story for .99 cents. Heck, I'd pay at least $1.50 a short story for decent writers. They don't have to be well-known, just strong writers. I don't want short story collections to go the way of poetry collections, market losers purchased by the literary elite off the "last chance" bargin table. Won't Apple or a smart start-up create IStories for me?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

the end of the dust jacket

"When I was a ten-year-old book worm and used to kiss the dust jacket pictures of authors as if they were icons, it used to amaze me that these remote people could provoke me to love." - Erica Jong

While I won't admit to kissing author photos on a book jacket, I will admit to staring in wonderment at an author or two's book jacket photo the way one might stare at the yearbook picture of the popular kid in high school, the kid you wish you hung out with, the kid you wanted to be. I suppose dusk jackets will go the way of bookstores at some point. E-book readers don't need dusk jackets. Do they even come with front cover art and author photos?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The bookstore massacre is coming Brett Arends' ROI - MarketWatch

The bookstore massacre is coming Brett Arends' ROI - MarketWatch

This article by Brett Arends made me sad, but, alas, I have to agree with him: the massacre of the American bookstore is coming. Apparently, Barnes & Noble is going up for sale. I closed my bookstore business almost two years ago. We were just beginning and headed in the right direction when the recession knocked up a fatal blow. I believe bookstores are making themselves obsolete with e-book readers. Gadgets are fun, but I'm hoping some form of bookstores will remain.

Friday, August 13, 2010

the mind of the writer

"Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, 'God! This is fascinating!'" - Jane Smiley

My friends think I'm a good listener. Don't get me wrong. I am a good listener, but there are times when I worry that I'm not so much listening to empathize and support as I'm listening to take notes for writing. Does this make me a bad person, or is it just the writer in me? Maybe both.

I'm hoping no dear friends read this particular blog, but, being the smart individuals they are, they've probably picked up on my strange habit of seeing the world as an orchard of potential characters and plots, waiting to be harvested. That's the cool thing about good friends: they get how twisted you can be and love you anyway.

I think writers by nature can't help but look at drama, and conflict, and joy, and pain (the stuff of life) and say, "That would make a fantastic story." It's in our blood. We apologize in advance to anyone who expects better of us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Layoffs at Borders Headquarters

Read the Publishers Weekly article - click here.
Layoffs at Borders Headquarters

I can't help but wonder if the recent announcement of more layoffs with Borders is a direct result of recent increases in e-book sales. Everytime I bring up e-books with my writer friends I hear the same thing, commonly surmized by the idiom "You can't fight progress." Also, I can't help but wonder if the salespeople at the big book chains realize when they push the e-readers on their walkin customers, their got-in-a-car-drove-themselves-to-an-actual-bookstore-to-buy-a-book customers, if they realize they're helping put themselves out of a job.

Bye-bye bookstores. We'll miss you.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thought for the Day

"I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper." - Steve Martin

Give yourself credit where credit is due and don't be too hard on yourself. Writing is creating out of thin air, from the smoke of our dreams and desires. It's not magic, and it doesn't come easily.

Monday, August 9, 2010

books and chewing gum

"This will never be a civilized country until we expend more money for books than we do for chewing gum." - Elbert Hubbard

I couldn't find stats on how much Americans spend on chewing gum, or, for that matter, how much we spend on books. I know, I'm a dork. I actually tried to find this out. Although this sentiment might not be statistically true, it sure feels psychologically true. My lament is not that we don't read, but that we don't read enough good, thoughtful writers.

I spend a lot of time, too much time, in thrift stores and at yard sales. I'm always hunting for books. Sadly, the majority of what I find is utter garbage. Okay, okay, I hear you already. So people are reading. That should be enough. The fact that what they're reading is soulless, pointless, trivial BS shouldn't matter. I can't help but agree with Mark Twain when he wrote, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

UNF Writers Conference - lessons learned

The 2010 UNF Writers Conference has concluded and before hitting the sack for some well-needed rest I thought I'd share my notes on the conference and some lessons learned.

New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry kicked off the three-day event with a informative general session on "What Every Writer Should Never Forget." What is that crucial element we writers must keep in the forethought of our minds? The three-act structure. I found Berry's focus of a hands-on, methodical approach to story structure solid advice for the beginning writer and a great reminder for more experienced writers. For most writing, the fundamentals of story telling begin there, so what better way to begin a writing conference? Lesson learned: Begin at the beginning and pay attention to the basics of structure.

The rest of Friday's schedule allowed the writer to choose from sets of workshops. The three out of the four I attended were interactive and provided concrete ways to build character, market yourself, and increase tension and desire in your reader. I found Sharon Cobb's session on creating characters through the "psychologist-treatment" method innovative in its approach to getting to deeper levels in the understanding and fleshing-out of characters. Darrell House's high-energy session - part performance, part self-marketing tips - on "getting the gig" in the children's book market was just a blast. Local crime writer and literature professor Michael Wiley's session on building narrative desire for the reader was invaluable in its thoughtful approach to the elements of tension and suspense, especially for mystery novels but applicable for other genres and mainstream literary fiction. Though not as interactive, Young Adult fiction writer Adrian Fogelin's session served as a good reminder of the way fiction can touch pre-teens and teens and what a unique opportunity the YA author has for shaping young hearts and minds. Lesson learned: Pick your workshop sessions wisely and find ways to apply the speaker's message to your particular genre and style.

Saturday and Sunday concentrated on critique sessions with a published writer. Attendees were given some options on genres: children's, memoir, general fiction, young adult fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting. I used the opportunity to workshop the first ten pages of my YA book Gems in the Rough. The YA author for my section, Kristin Harmel, was fantastic. Energetic, supportive, and honest, I found working with her and the entire critique group engaging and productive, so much so our group has decided to ban together and start our own Jacksonville YA writers critique group. Go Team YA! I was even lucky enough to find an early reader for my book who I thing can give me the fresh eyes and constructive criticism I need for the revision process. Lesson learned: Be supportive of your fellow writer's efforts and use the time to network.

Sunday's lunch speaker, magazine writer Mary W. Bridgman provided useful advice on getting your work out there and using small magazines as a way to build publishing credits. The day ended with information on writing a pitch for the "Book & Film Deal Connection" pitch book, which will go out to agents, publishers, and producers who have agreed to read the pitches. I could tell there were lots of excited writers in the audience ready to pitch their books.

The only swing and miss, for me, for the conference came after lunch on Sunday with the First Page Panel program. Attendees were invited to submit the first page of a manuscript. For what purpose was rather vague at the time of asking. I submitted the first page of a manuscript that hasn't gotten past the first chapter and hadn't been revised, a sci-fi/horror bit called Additive, about the conspiracy by food companies and the pharmaceutical industry to hook Americans on a dangerous food additive. About half of the first pages submitted were selected. Mine was one of them. The First Page Panel turned out to be the writer reading his or her first page in front everyone and three workshop leaders sitting on stage critiquing their first page submission.

In theory, perhaps not a bad idea. But who wants to be unknowingly thrown into an American Idol -style first page crit/bash? Some judges even focused on spelling and comma errors, which although important if you're sending work to an agent, aren't worth focusing on and using to club the unsuspecting beginning writer. The audience wasn't able to visually follow the page (I need to see a page not have it read to me), the writers were not allowed to provide any set up or even book jacket blurb to orient the audience, and one of the judges took more time to rip apart the page than the writer took to read it. I was sort of happy the session ran long and they never got to mine. Overall, a bad idea and a waste of valuable time. I would have appreciated more time spent on the business aspect of building a writing career, the kind of stuff you don't get in the other workshops. Lesson learned: Be careful sending in samples of work when you don't know what it will be used for.

For the most part, I enjoyed the weekend and will return for next year's conference, hopefully with an agent and a book deal.

Happy writing this-coming week, friends, and keep the literary faith.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

UNF Writers Conference this weekend

The UNF Writers Conference is in its second day today. I plan to post a detailed entry after tomorrow's conclusion, but in the meanwhile I wanted to offer words of encouragement today to keep the literary faith and keep writing. Two common themes running through the workshops and critique groups are to write the book you most want to read and not to be afraid to edit savagely when needed, which I firmly believe is a necessary function similar to pruning a rose bush or disciplining your child. Along these lines, I offer a quote by the esteemed author Henry James for your consideration:
"I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bleeding corpse."
Henry James, following a request from the TLS to cut three lines from a 5,000 word article.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

books and writers that make us want to write

"Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you've become a writer, reading books others write -- and rereading the beloved books of the past -- constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration." - Susan Sontag

A few books that made me want to write (in no particular order):

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
Beloved and Paradise - Toni Morrison
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
Geek Love - Katherine Dunn
Ellen Foster - Kaye Gibbons
Kate Vaiden - Reynolds Price
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursala Le Quin
Romeo & Juliet - William Shakespeare

Add to this list the short stories of Flannery O'Conner, Edgar Alan Poe, Angela Carter, and Ray Bradbury and the poetry of e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath.

Keep reading, keep writing, and keep the literary faith.

Monday, August 2, 2010

more quotes on the joy of books

"Books are a delightful society. If you go into a room filled with books, even without taking them down from their shelves, they seem to speak to you, to welcome you." - William E. Gladstone

"As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye." - John Milton

"An ordinary man can . . . surround himself it two thousand books . . . and thenceforward have a least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy." - Augustine Birrell

A good book to me is an accomplished literary construction. I am drawn into the story, and the characters become real. They talk to me long after the last page is read. But more than that, I delight in the structure of the book, whether multi-layered or straight forward. Much in the same way I imagine an architect might stand in awe of a remarkably-constructed building. I study its use of dialogue, paragraph construction, chapter structure, literary devices. I want to discuss with others who love good writing an author's command of punctuation, how he or she wields a comma with deft and grace, slices a passage in just the perfect manner with a dash, makes a statement with an ellipsis. When every word counts, every sentence holds together, every scene is a beauty on its own and necessary part of an exquisite whole, I clap my hands and applaud the talent, skill, and passion of the author. Bravo. Bravo.

What is a good book mean to you?

the random read

"If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them -- peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances." - Winston Churchill

I love the anticipation of surprise in the random read. I have a large bookshelf of books I've read, books I want to read, books I think I should own (just in case they go out of print and every copy but the copy I've saved is consumed by rabid swarms of book-eating locus). It's one of my favorite pastimes to flip through a book that's been on my mind. I turn to a page, letting my eyes pour over the words until a passage strikes my fancy. I rarely read more than a page, placing the book back carefully in its proper place. I find great comfort in knowing it will be there for me when I feel the urge to visit it again. I suppose it might be like a foodie stopping by Whole Foods just to walk the isles, picking out an interesting jar of this or that or handling a ripe fruit, taking in a good, long sniff of the produce, and placing it back on the shelf or in the bin. Or the wine aficionado at a wine tasting.

Random reads for your pleasure:

From Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

"'I remember when first I went to Paris, Clutton, I think it was, gave a long discourse on the subject that beauty is put into things by painters and poets. They create beauty. In themselves there is nothing to choose between the Campanile of Giotto and a factory chimney. And then beautiful things grow rich with the emotion that they have aroused in succeeding generations. That is why old things are more beautiful than modern. The Ode to a Grecian Urn is more lovely now than when it was written, because for a hundred years lovers have read it and the sick at heart take comfort in its lines.'"

From The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

"The rain had stopped. The air now drove out of southeast, broken overhead into blue patches. Upon the crest of a hill beyond the trees and roofs and spires of town sunlight lay like a pale scrap of cloth, was blotted away. Upon the air a bell came, than as if at a signal, other bells took up the sound and repeated it."

Time for one more? Yes?
Always time for one more.

From Jazz by Toni Morrison

"Girls can do that. Steer a man away from death or drive him right to it. Pull you out of sleep and you wake up on the ground under a tree you'll never locate again because you're lost. Or if you do find it, it won't be the same. Maybe it cracked from the inside, bored through by crawling life that had to have its own way too, and just crept and bunched and gnawed and burrowed until the whole thing was pitted through with the service it rendered to others. Or maybe they cut it down before it crashed in on itself. Turned it into logs for a fire in a big hearth for children to gaze into."

Ah, the random read. Always a surprise and delight waiting in the turn of a page.