Category Archives: Writing

The Hunger Games. Not Safe for Driving.

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The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

As part of my continuing effort to make the best of the “All North Florida Tour” (AKA my 74 mile round-trip commute on days I pick up and drop off the kids), I started listening last week to The Hunger Games on CD in the car. When got to the soccer field on Friday to pick up T, I had two thoughts: (1) I hope they haven’t noticed that I’m here yet so I’ll have a few more minutes to listen to the book, and (2) I’m going to go crazy waiting until Monday to be able to listen again. And, of course, I just spent ten minutes sitting in my car in the driveway, listening to the dog whimpering to be let out, because I really needed to know Katniss’s plan before I turned the book off for the night.

The really amazing thing is, so far I haven’t (a) gotten into a wreck because I was so into the book that I forgot to pay attention to other cars or (b) found myself randomly crossing the Georgia border because I forgot to take my exit 45 miles earlier. Both of these are really surprising.

I’ve listened to a lot of books on CD in the car in the past two-and-a-half years. Many of them have been great books (e.g., The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 — if you haven’t read this book, you should. It’s hilarious and meaningful. I’ll never think of Yakety Yak in quite the same way again.) But I don’t think I’ve listened to one yet that had me so completely involved in the story. I think about it during the day. I dream about it at night. I nearly drive myself crazy googling “Hunger Games” or “Katniss” or “Peeta Mellark” and then forcing myself not to click on any of the links for fear  I’ll see spoilers. And for someone used to reading whole books in a night, it takes so amazingly long to listen to a 350+ page book. I admit, though I keep being tempted to just go buy the book and get it over with, I know that I’m enjoying more by letting the story play out slowly. I get a chance to actually worry about Katniss, and Peeta, and Rue, instead of just turning the page and plowing through to find out what happens next.

I’m about halfway through the book now. Can Suzanne Collins possibly keep up the tension for another 4 CDs? Will I go nuts waiting a whole week to get to the end of the book? And will the end of Book 1 just make me desperately want to read Catching Fire? We’ll see.

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Book Review: Bird by Bird

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Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,
by Anne Lamott
 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

 I can’t decide if reading this book will make me a better writer, or if it is just going to give me a better sense of humor about it. Anne Lamott has the kind of quirky sense of humor that makes me want to actually meet her and be her friend. We could have a blast making fun of ourselves and of everyone else, all while having occasional deep thoughts about life. For one thing, it was Anne Lamott who said (in this book, in fact, while quoting her priest friend, Tom), “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Now there’s someone I can relate to.

The following are a few useful quotes from Bird by Bird, because, no matter how long I try, I won’t be able to say it better than Anne Lamott does:

“Later that summer I came to know how they felt, when I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time and I knew what it was like to have someone speak for me, to close a book with a sense of both triumph and relief, one lonely isolated social animal finally making contact.”

“So God made some of us fast in this area of working with words, and he gave us the gift of loving to read with the same kind of passion with which we love nature.”

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts…. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

“The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.”

“…I also tell them that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.”

Winnie the Pooh and the Red-Letter Day

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Winnie the Pooh and Friends

The original Winnie the Pooh and Friends

 

“I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me.”
– Sir Walter Raleigh

 “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.”
– Beverly Sills

Today is a red letter day. I’ve finally finished the first draft of The House of Wisdom! Although I’m sure it’s a bit of a disaster, especially as the first 150 pages were written during the craziness of NaNoWriMo, it’s a great feeling just to be done. With this part, anyway. As strongly advised by distinguished sources, I’ll be putting it away for a few weeks before beginning the first re-write.

In addition to the major job of vastly improving on the speed writing I did in November, I’ll also need to work through a couple of major plot issues I recognized once I slowed down the process in December and January. Faced with the choice of starting the whole thing over again, or just continuing as it was and fixing them later, I chose to keep going. As I’ve said before, the main benefit of NaNoWriMo for me was simply having a deadline that encouraged me to keep writing even when I didn’t feel like it. The deadline helped me avoid the temptation to just quit when the story seemed a little kooky, or stale, or not well-enough written for my own taste, or for any of the other reasons I had quit without finishing before. (Perhaps because writing so quickly meant I didn’t have time to worry about all those problems!) When I pick up the draft again, of course, I’ll have to face those issues, and do a fairly significant re-write of some sections to fix them. Yes, I’m a little intimidated. However, I’m reminded of and encouraged by the wise words of a very smart little boy to his tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff ):

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Christopher Robin to Pooh (A.A. Milne) 

Book Review: The Gendarme and Sarah’s Key

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The Gendarme, by Mark Mustian

The Gendarme

I decided to read The Gendarme because I have a slight professional connection to the author, Mark Mustian. In his non-noveling hours, Mark is a bond lawyer in Tallahassee, Florida and we’ve occasionally worked on the same transactions. When I saw that he’d published his debut novel, of course I had to read it. I went in with admittedly low expectations (sorry, Mark) because, well, I kind of know this guy, so how could anyone I actually kind of know, and especially a bond lawyer, write a great novel? Happily, my somewhat low expectations were exceeded, and then some. In fact, because I know from personal experience what excruciatingly boring documents bond lawyers work on in their professional roles, I wondered more than once while reading The Gendarme how Mark could write such beautiful and moving prose after hours. How did he make this transition? Did he stop in a phone booth to do a Superman-type transformation on the way home each night? Where did he find an actual phone booth in which to do this? I need to figure this out.

 The Gendarme tells the story of an elderly Turkish-American, Emmett Conn, who is having flashbacks to his youth. As a very young man, Emmett served as one of the soldiers implementing the forced migration of ethnic Armenians in a brutal march across Turkey that resulted in the death of over a million people  between 1915 and 1918. Throughout his adult life in the U.S., Emmett has repressed his memories of that time, and even of his original name, Ahmet Khan. It’s an interesting lens through which to see this horrifying period in history. Emmett seems like a nice old guy who would never imagine taking part in the inhumane treatment of others. Or, at least, that’s what he and everyone around him thinks before the flashbacks begin. Memories also begin surfacing of a woman Emmett knows he must have loved, but he has no memory of what happened to her. I won’t tell you how it all works out, because you should really read the book yourself. Let’s just say Emmett goes a long way to find out.  

The Gendarme is a beautiful first novel.

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key

For some inexplicable reason, I completely forgot that the friend who loaned me Sarah’s Key specifically told me it was about the Holocaust, and so I picked it up for a bit of light reading right after finishing The Gendarme. For future reference, I wouldn’t suggest reading a Holocaust story immediately after a novel set during the Armenian genocide. It was a little overwhelming. Sarah’s Key follows the parallel paths of Julia, a modern-day writer living in Paris, and Sarah, a young Jewish girl whose family is arrested by Paris police along with thousands of others during the Vel d’Hiver roundup in July, 1942. Ultimately, nearly everyone taken during the Vel d’Hiver roundup was transported to Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazis. Many never made it that far. Julia has lived most of her adult life Paris, but has never heard of this detail of French history. For that matter, most of her Parisian friends and family seem to know not much more about it than she does. When Julia begins researching the Vel d’Hiver roundup for an article she’s writing in honor of the 60th anniversary of the event, she realizes the extent to which Parisians tried to forget those dark days, and discovers her own family’s unexpected connection has to the tragedy.

I’ve read other reviews that say that the story loses some of its power at the point that the author drops the part of the story being told by Sarah.  I actually had the same thought at that point in the book, but the flaw isn’t great enough to discourage readers.

Never Forget

Sarah’s Key reminds us of the extent of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Though I’ve read a good bit on the Holocaust over the years, the horror of it and the hatred that engendered it continue to be unfathomable to me. The Gendarme was even more of an eye-opener. Although I’d heard of the Armenian genocide, I knew very little about it. Learning more about the events in Turkey made me think of the other genocides that we tend to overlook (Bosnia, Rwanda), but that were devastating to uncountable numbers of people. The fact that these crimes were perpetrated by such diverse groups compounds the horror. This isn’t a crime that only Nazis can carry out — it can happen anywhere, at any time. The next time you hear someone disparaging a group of people in a generalized way, the way that makes them seem less human somehow, and more acceptable to despise because “they’re not like us,” remember that people have used similar excuses for generations to excuse their own evil acts.

Never forget.

Lawyers and Novelists

The Amber Room, by Steve Berry

As an aside, about a year ago I read The Amber Room, by Steve Berry, on the same theory that got me to pick up a copy of The Gendarme. Steve has, or rather, used to have, a law practice in south Georgia (I imagine he’s too busy traveling the world searching for new book ideas to practice law anymore). In an earlier phase in my career, I used to go fairly regularly to Steve’s offices for closings. I had no idea at the time that I was in the presence of a future best-selling novelist. In fact, it never would have crossed my mind. (Sorry, Steve – you just seemed like a regular guy to me.)  Actually, it was reading the FAQ on Steve’s webpage that originally inspired me to try my own hand at writing a novel. In the FAQ, Steve describes the timeline in which he wrote and published his first book. Though it may seem daunting to some, I was actually encouraged to see that it took 12 years of writing from the time he started his first novel to the time The Amber Room  was published. 12 years. I think because my earlier attempts had seemed so… unprofessional, it was encouraging to think that if I kept trying, I might actually improve.  Rather than making me want to jump off the Dames Point Bridge, this gave me a little odd hope that sometimes perseverance really does pay off.

Here’s the direct quote from Steve’s FAQ:

How did Steve get into writing?

 He made the decision to write a novel in 1990.  It was something Steve thought about for years, but finally decided to act on.  That first attempt was long and awful. The second and third attempts weren’t much better.  It wasn’t until the fourth try that he began to appreciate the reality that writing novels is hard.  Steve kept writing for 12 years and produced 8 manuscripts.  Each one was a learning experience and, as he wrote, Steve studied the craft.  His education was one of trial and error.  He attended a writing workshop once a week for 6 years, where the participants would tear apart everything he wrote.  Then he’d go home and put it all back together again, hopefully a little better than before.  Between the workshop, the writers’ group, and writing every day Steve taught himself the craft.  Not until six years into the process was he fortunate to land an agent: Pam Ahearn.  She kept him around for 7 years until May 2002, when Ballantine Books finally bought The Amber Room.  During those years Pam submitted five different manuscripts to New York publishers, each one was rejected, 85 rejections all total, until eventually, on the 86th attempt, the right-editor-at-the-right-time-with-the-right-story was found.  Like Steve says, ‘he may or may not know much about writing, but he’s an expert on rejection.’

 Thanks, Steve, for the glimmer of hope.

NaNoWriMo Day 16: Just Past Halfway

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Yesterday I wrote my 25,000th word. By the NaNoWriMo definition of a novel, that means I’m halfway done. I continue to be amazed that by just continuing to plod along on this, a little bit at a time, every single solitary day, I seem to be actually making progress toward writing my very first, probably truly horrible, novel.

However, today I broke two rules. I now know why I shouldn’t have. The first is Stephen King’s rule to never review your first draft until you’ve let it sit for at least a month (I think he said a month – but I’ve already returned On Writing to the library, so I can’t confirm this). I can see the benefit in letting it all just marinate for a while before returning to the beginning. I just skimmed the first fifteen pages today. When I go back for a real read of the whole thing, I’d like for it to feel completely new. I felt a little of that today – details I’d written in the early pages that I’d forgotten all about, but letting it sit a few more weeks would have been better.

The second rule broken was the NaNoWriMo rule to never attempt to edit your November draft until December 1st.  For one thing, I didn’t need the discouragement halfway through the process of trying to make literature out of the, um, swill that I wrote at the beginning of the month. Better to finish this project while I still have momentum and the (perhaps overly optimistic) belief that something good could come of this one day. Having peeked back at the beginning pages is a dose of reality. I’m still optimistic, but it’s apparent that there will be a lot more work required than I like to think about after this first draft is completed.

So, enough procrastinating. I still have 2,300 words to write today. Time to press on.

Ella is inspired to wear shorts

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Ella is inspired to wear shorts

even though it’s 40 degrees outside.

She knows her own mind well.

She’d rather be cold in shorts

than wear jeans and be warm.

The willfulness of 4-year-olds

isn’t always consistent with good sense.

But we love her spirit and

the strong woman she will become.

This post was created as part of Six Word Fridays.

NaNoWriMo Day 6: Getting in the Groove of Things

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I took a day off writing yesterday for a little family time, and am now back in full force. I think I’ll actually catch up on my word count before the day is over (having fallen behind yesterday).

I am having a little trouble moving the story along, though.  Basically, we’re on page 26 now, and it’s still the same day. This is turning out much differently than I envisioned. I pictured the main characters moving through several adventures, as they found their way back home again. Instead, almost 10,000 words in, they are still only about half way through their first adventure, which I’m beginning to think may end up being their only adventure, in this book at least. Fifty thousand words is actually a tad long for a middle grades book, so it’s not like I’m going to just keep adding story lines until I’ve created War and Peace for the fifth grader set.

I was re-reading The Willoughbys this week and was impressed by how quickly, and without wasted words, Lois Lowry moves the story along. I wish I knew how to do that. Any suggestions? Is this a common problem, for beginning writers, anyway?

NaNoWriMo Day 1: I think I’m Getting Carpal Tunnel Already

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Wow. Day 1, and I am already beginning to see why writing a book is hard work. I mean, I’m sure this is obvious to all you professional writers out there, but I have to admit that I thought that it would be a bit easier, compared to, say, writing 47 pages of legalese  for a software purchase agreement. I suppose the fact that I read and write all day at work probably doesn’t make it any easier to come home and write “for pleasure” either. Nevertheless (or should I say “Notwithstanding the forgoing or anything otherwise to the contrary in this Agreement”), I’m enjoying at least trying to get that first novel out of me and seeing how it feels to have done it.

The thirty day/50,000 word timeline of NaNoWriMo (whose website is not loading today, by the way) is already stressing me out a little too, although I can see how easy it would be to quit without the competitive incentive (see for instance the multiple examples of times I’ve tried something like this before and not finished) and how helpful it is to have a clear goal for each day.  I’m actually a little ahead of schedule, in fact, so I think I’ll go now and pay some attention to my husband, who very thoughtfully wandered off when I got the old laptop out.

If anybody else out there is working on your Great American Novel this month, or has participated in NaNoWriMo before, I’d love to hear some war stories, and  a little encouragement would be great too!

Overcoming Distraction the Old-Fashioned Way

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently spent several hours working on my old laptop to bring it back into commission. With only one working computer in the house and four of us wanting to use it, I was finding that the opportunities for writing were few and far between. I know what you’re thinking – why can’t she write on paper? Of course I can, and do for taking notes, but after twenty-five years of typing, I find the paper method is just way too slow. It drives me crazy that my hands can’t get the words out of my head faster.

All the effort put into fixing up the laptop was 100% worth it. Not only, as intended, because it allows me to write while someone else uses the other computer, but more than that, because firing up the old laptop for the first time in five years, I’ve discovered old documents and been reminded of important facts I had completely forgotten. Like the fact that I wrote fifteen pages of my grandmother’s life story in 2003. That I started a novel before. That I actually thought of myself as a writer at one point. It’s amazing I could forget these things. Skimming my grandmother’s story, I realized that what I had written was moving, and that it really wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.

Another unexpected benefit from using the dinosaur — without Internet access, it’s much easier to focus. I definitely have just enough Internet ADD to find it hard to concentrate for more than about 10 minutes before needing a “fix.” While working on the old laptop there is no more clicking over to news sites or blogs when a writing block hits…and then getting distracted for half an hour (or more) until it’s bedtime and I’m out of time to write anything else. At least not without getting up from the comfy chair and going into the other room, which is just enough bother to keep me plugging ahead…most of the time.

Something old, something new…

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After months of wishing for more time to devote to writing of any sort, resenting a little the amount of time the rest of my family spends on our only computer, and dreaming of purchasing a new MacBook just for me, it dawned on me that all I really need is a computer that can run Word. And that my old laptop, though perilously ancient, probably had enough life left in it for such a simple task. The problem was, somewhere along the way the old laptop began functioning so slowly you could paint a house in the time it took to load programs. This is not conducive to reaching the elusive state of “flow” (unless house painting has that effect on you, in which case, please send me a quote for painting a 1,500 square foot ranch).

Now, after about two hours of work last night, I think I’ve gotten the old laptop to a functioning state. Of course, by the time I re-booted it five times and deleted every non-essential program I could find, it was so late that it was too late to actually test it. And I’m concerned that there may still be some background spyware that caused the slowdown in the first place. Any hints on how to completely clean a computer (without hooking it up to the Internet) would be greatly appreciated.

Next, of course, I must actually use the computer…