Wednesday, November 17, 2010

the research lull

It never fails that a crucial moment in my writing where the story is flowing, the dialogue is working well, the pieces are finally coming together, I hit a research lull

What I mean by that is, I come to a paragraph where I want to use imagery and show a deeper meaning but I want to do it subtly. The result: a research lull. It's the name I've given to the time that I spend NOT writing my story, but instead, trying to find out everything I can about a flower, or a historical event, or even a surname. Then, after the lull, I have the daunting task of using what I've learned in my novel without it looking forced or unrealistic or even worse, RESEARCHED!

So far, I've enjoyed the lulls, if for no other reason than the fact that I get to discover new things, things that but for my writing, I might have never known. Plus, these lulls keep me sane while I'm writing as they offer a little break, some time to breathe and think away from the words themselves.

Research never felt so good!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

dialogue delights

I've come to realize that what I do best is write dialogue

maybe it's because I'm a loudmouth

strike that-maybe it's because I enjoy getting to know people

reverse that- I think it's because I like for people to get to know me

Willy Wonka speech aside, dialogue is what I do best in life and on the page. For the first time while writing, I can see how my day to day interactions with people are influencing what I write, and HOW I write it. Yes, I know, most writers do this, they write what they know, blah blah blah.

But for me, I'm not writing what I know, I'm writing how we TALK about what we know. This explains to a certain extent why I'm drawn to the writing of Charles Baxter or the short stories of Raymond Carver. The dialogue makes the story just like it colors my life.

And, this is not me being experimental or original. It's all been done before, but this is me finding my voice. My protagonist has found his voice...and for a writer, there is nothing better.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


This is my first October post which has me feeling, well, lazy, despite my writing efforts which have actually been doubled this month

I've decided to use this post to analyze my predicament...every writer has one, right?

So, my predicament: I AM NORMAL

Yes, I said it. These days, it seems that being "normal" is a bad thing or somehow less serious. I'm not over the top normal but then again, I'm more normal than abnormal, or more sane than crazy so, where does that leave me and my writing?

Does it make it or me less interesting, less likely to be taken seriously? Sadly, in the world of writing, I say yes. Now, sane might be more likely to land me an agent but, with that sanity comes the question the sanity marketable? Again, sadly, in the wrold of writing, I say no. Sanity might just be the death knoll for a fiction writer struggling to break into the inudstry. Maybe it means we play it too safe, take too few risks. Maybe it means we analyze too much and write too little. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm certain it is the predicament I'm in.

I don't know how to fix it short of going nuts. But for now, I'm going to try and read more. Reading always brings me back home, a reminder that out of predicaments, perseverance is born.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

exceptional excerpt #3

This excerpt is shorter than ones I've posted before, but it is a tiny paragraph that simply caught my eye, made me fold down the page so that I could remember exactly how the author said it.

It is taken from Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" which is what I'm reading right now and this portion follows the recollection of a character's recitation of "The Village Blacksmith," a poem by Longfellow.

"Dennis had only to glance at his mother to learn that she found no charm in the words, that it sounded to her like monotony. A slow march to an unremarkable end."

I simply found this two sentence paragraph not only perfectly worded, but the layers of meaning make it profound and memorable, particulary the last sentence. At this point in the novel, you have a sense of that the mother is living a life that is not what she would have wanted but that it is one she has, in a way, simply succumbed to. That her life, like the poem she is being subjected to again and again and again, even as it winds down, is nothing all that special. To put that much into two sentences is amazing to me. For that reason, I think it earns its place here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


In my writing, I find that foreshadowing comes naturally even if I don't know exactly what it is that I will be writing down the road...and I do it through memories.

Some will say that flashbacks are not effective in fiction, that it takes the reader out of the story, but I think if it is done well, and is a brief memory, it not only adds to the story and advances the plot, it can deepen the understanding that the reader has of the decisions being made by the main character.

Example from my current work in progress:

"Saturdays had always been the day she cleaned and that ceiling fan had been the one household appliance that she always needed help with for one reason or another. When the switch on the wall wouldn’t work anymore, my dad’s brother, the one we called only by “Uncle,” had come over and taken care of it for us without charging my mom a dime. The time my sister did a cartwheel in the living room and broke one of the blades with her foot, Sears delivered a new set of four blades to our door and we replaced the white blades with ones that looked like wood. Pastor Timothy had helped me change them out and my mom had made shepherd’s pie for him to take as a thank you. Staring up into the spiraling brown, I remembered that she had left out the carrots as if she’d known that he didn’t like them."

(this is a memory the son is having after the death of his he is trying to piece together the life that he didn't know his mother had)

This paragraph, standing alone, could almost be the start of a story but, as placed in my current novel, the flashback, albeit brief, serves a purpose in advancing the plot and foreshadowing what is to come. I don't believe that one set of ideas about writing covers all novels and for that reason, I will adhere to my belief that flashbacks can work in small doses.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

where to begin

In writing, I find that deciding "where to begin" my story is the biggest challenge. Often, in rewrites, I change the opening line, the opening paragraphs where I may leave entire chapters thereafter untouched aside from basic grammar or punctuation changes. Maybe it's me second-guessing myself. That might be it, but, because I know how my brain works, I lean toward thinking that the problem is that I don't really know where stories begin, none of them.

Aside from the "in the beginning" from the book of Genesis, all stories start at some point in time after the start of it all. You find yourself immersed in a world that is already firmly moving in one direction, with people who are set in their ways existing in societies or some other setting that pre-dated them.

Thomas Hardy's Tess was who she was because of the oppression of Victorian England just as J.D. Salinger's Holden was who he was because of changing landscape of 20th century America. Yet, somehow, these two got it right. We don't see Tess as a toddler or as a young milkmaid who matures into a lonely yet passionate woman just as we don't see Holden as an old man who has retired from banking and sending his kids off to college. We catch these two at just the right moment, at the moment of change.

Finding *that* moment and writing about it is what I struggle with. Putting a finger on not just where the trouble starts but on where the "interesting" trouble starts is my dilemma. I am not intent on writing a life story where I put on display the birth through the death. I am decidedly working on letting the reader see a person in a struggle...a struggle that is not only relatable, but that is traceable, recordable, and ultimately, believable.

So at perhaps the expense of my endings, I strive to begin strong. After all, that's where the reader begins as well.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

the nemesis that is progress

So, like everything in life from raising children to growing out your hair to deciding to buy a house or a car, the progress that is "perceived" by others upon observing these things does not in any way convey the rough start, the more trying middle, and the near collapse before the polished final result

It's the same way with writing

I am a better writer now but it is hard that at the end of the day I am becoming more and more proud of, but work that in no way reveals to the reader how difficult it was for me to imagine a scene and construct a sentence that would convey the scene in an interesting and hopefully original way

The end result is one thing...and it's something I am still working at

Right now, I'm stuck somewhere between trying and failing, smack dab in the middle I think. It's where the runner in me kicks in and says finish, even if it leaves you tired and wondering what you were thinking by taking on the extra distance after all.
Finish and then be proud that you are done, regardless of the time.

So, I'm working on it and inside, I'm hoping that all the steep inclines are behind me...I'd prefer to finish with a long downhill stride, to end strong. I just hope my metaphorical shoes don't come untied and trip me up.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

birds of a feather

So, I'm not sure what the world is trying to tell me but I've been inundated lately with odd bird sightings and by this I don't mean I've seen rare or endangered birds or anything especially noteworthy as to their appearance or grandeur. No, what I mean is that I've seen things, strange things, things involving birds that can only be explained by thinking, "I must be seeing this so I can write it down for later use."

Case in point:

Yesterday, driving to work, I passed by an apartment complex and was simply taking in the sights as I drove when I spotted, standing in her driveway, a rather large woman, a tweedle dee round woman, holding a water hose, swaying it even as if dancing all by herself, while she filled a blue plastic kiddie pool. But, the part that really caught my eye was that this woman, oblvious to the world around her, with eyes closed in the midday sun, had a gray parrot sitting atop her head. It spread its wings once so I know it was alive, but, yes, it was there, enjoying the slight early afternoon breeze as much as the woman was.

Now, this is not the kind of thing I can witness and not memorialize. Already I've included my "peacock at the gas station" spotting in my current work in progress. I'm not sure what these bird sightings mean but it definitely has me looking to the skies these days and wondering what the nest in the logustrum outside my front door has waiting for me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

taking a break

I took a break from writing for the last two weeks. It wasn't intentional. I didn't need a break per se, but, a break is what it ended up being. But, during that break, I did a lot of reading.

The result:

I am re-energized about writing but am reminded about how much work it is to make my writing "good enough"...and I don't mean "good enough" for an agent, or editor, or publisher, or the reading public. I mean, "good enough" for me. I want my writing to live up to my standards first and foremost and, while taking a break from writing should help me toward that end, when I spend the time off reading other really teriffic stuff, I come back to my work(s) in progress, not only skeptical of my abilities, but frustrated with my own notions of what works and what doesn't.

I'm not sure what the fix is. Maybe I shouldn't take breaks like this. Maybe I shouldn't read during the break and should confine my reading to while I am writing, to keep the metaphorical creative juices flowing. All I do know is that I won't adjust my standards or lower my sights.

A goal that is too easily reachable is not a challenge an that's just not me. I've always loved a good fight.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

exceptional excerpt number two

So, as I've done previously, I am posting here a tiny nugget of wisdom from a novel I'm reading. As is usually the case with Philip Roth, there are too many little gems to keep track of them all but, here are two that I think warrant attention from his novel, "The Counterlife"

Page 127, where the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, explains how he can write about things without having experienced them or wanting to experience them:

"...imagining violence and the release of the brute, imagining the individuals engaged in it, doesn't necessitate embracing it. There's no retreat or hypocrisy in a writer who doesn't go out and do what he may have thought about doing...the only retreat is retreating from what you know."

Similarly, a few pages later, page 131, this sentiment is somewhat subtley expouded on when Zuckerman says:

"...certainly a life of writing books is a trying adventure in which you cannot find out where you are unless you lose your way."

Both of these sections are ones that made me stop and think and then think some more which is why I've put them here so that I won't foret. These are the nuggets of truth that I don't want to rely on my page-folding for. They deserve their own blog entries of course. Ah, the wonders of the digital age.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

my new favorite word


yes, thanks to my reading of Philip Roth, I have discovered a new favorite word..."meshuggah"! It's Yiddish for crazy or senseless but it has such a nice sound when you say it.

wikipedia lists the pronunciation as:


I came across this for the first time while reading Philip Roth's "The Counterlife" and he uses "meshugge" which is a variation but still in Yiddish. Mostly, aside from discovering this word and how much I like to say it, the word itself gave me an idea for this blog entry.

The word prompted research. That research led me down other research rabbit trails deeper into the Yiddish language which revealed that Yiddish is only spoken by approximately 1.7 million people worldwide but that it is the official minority language in Sweden. As a high German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin which is actually written in the Hebrew alphabet, I find the language (in translation of course) extremely interesting and definitely necessary to a thorough reading and understanding of the work of Philip Roth.

Oh, and as for the Ashkenazi Jews, well, those are the Jews who are the Jews descended from the medieval Jewish communities along the Rhine in Germany from Alsace in the south to the Rhineland in the north. Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew name for this region and thus for Germany.

There are many well known Ashkenazi Jews including Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, and Anne Frank. These are the German Jews who, to my amazement now, in the 21st century, probably used the word "meshuggah" to refer to their respective political and socio-economic upheavals, or advances or lack thereof in science or of their societys' worldviews.

In all honesty, to imagine for a moment, Sigmund Freud staring down his nose at a patient, saying to himself, "that goy is meshuggah" just makes me giggle and I love it.

Just when you think you can't learn anything from reading fiction.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

exceptional excerpts

so, in reading lately, I come across passages that I think warrant remembering and, as suggested by my brother, I thought I'd start posting what I feel are exceptional excerpts from books I've read so that I have a record of them

the book of the moment is John Updike's "Marry Me" and it's a passage I came across last night and that, since upon waking today and being met with rain and more rain, it seemed that this passage was meant to be placed into this blog for future reference.

from page 113

"The rain talked to her, talked in a metallic tapping voice near the windows, in a softer voice as she moved to the center of the room, in no voice at all when she covered her face with her hands. Each passing car made a comet-shaped swish and splash on the road. Upstairs in the bathroom, the windows were misted and the rain-gutter at the eaves, damned with maple wings and seedlings, joked at her, gurgling, burlesquing the fall of her urine into the oval of water beneath her. As she moved about making beds, the rain whispered attic secrets-mice, shingles, dry wrapping paper, Christmas excelsior."

It kind of makes me want to clean house this morning as the last drops of rain tiptoe across my back deck...just so I can see what it might have to say to me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

folding pages

I'm a page folder, or so I've decided. I'm not sure if that is something to be proud of or if it is rather a sign of some part of me that likes to hold onto things. I always think I'll go back and look at the page and some paragraph or sentence that caught my attention but I often don't do it. Yet, somehow, the folding of that page earmarks for me, in my memory, as something that IF I wanted to look it up later I could. That is comforting in its own way. It's like leaving little reminders for myself and going back, when I do it, is always entertainig.

I think to myself, why did I mark this? What about my life at that point in time made me want to remember this? Sometimes, if I've only folded down a page, I have to study the page itself to remember what words really mattered to me. It's always odd for me to get stumped by myself. But it happens. I don't always remember the why...but it still feels good to know that there was a reason...once upon a time.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Trying too Hard

With writing, either you get into a rhythm or you are trying too hard. Right now, I'm guilty of the latter. I call it being guilty becuase, it's not something you consciously do. It sort of just...happens.

There are sentences like:

Somewhere between the football field and the bicycle rack, I lost my wallet.

I typed it and thought, oh, yes, I can go somewhere with this sentence. It's simple but it has doors to it.

But then, here is what followed:

Its velcro strip was full of my sister’s Barbie’s hair and it wouldn’t stick like it should unless the wallet was practically empty.

So, I typed it which, standing alone would be interesting, perhaps humorous but, it stopped me...BECAUSE I WAS TRYING TOO HARD.

It makes sense to me looking back at it but I am sorely lacking in the editing department. For that reason, the paragraph of which those two sentences are a part, will likely remain where it is, out of place, dragging my story down and ultimately killing the piece altogether. Still, I can't delete them. Those words are original thoughts of mine and for now, while I ocnsider what to do with them, they will remain perfectly in tact until I come back to them when I'm not trying so hard anymore.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I've been thinking a lot lately about that moment...that moment in a novel where the protagonist has the "realization" that changes things. I've been thiking about it because it is something I struggle with. Mostly, I worry about whether my main character should have that moment or not.

Life, as most would agree, is full of both moments and non-moments. We do not reflect on our choices of sandwich meat in the deli at the supermarket or on which toothbrush to buy, but we do when choosing a career or a partner in life. I've thought about what it would be like to be a person who is the reverse perhaps, someone who in a Seinfeld sort of way, dwells and sweats of the seemingly small stuff in lieu of the larger life issues.

But, if I'm to write about the moments and non-moments, it only makes sense to me, particularly in trying to write fiction, that an anagnoris is necessary. Aristotle defines "anagnorisis" as a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.

He uses the example of Oedipus but we can clearly see how Shakespeare translated that into Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, even Othello when Othellos himself finally learns of his mistake as it relates to Desdemona's inappropriate relationship. Even modern day stories like Superman when he discovers his weakness is kryptonite or the moment when Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father is THAT moment, the moment when suddenly, the main character knows what he is destined for and how what he is destined for is going to change is that moment that I struggle to write or even imagine.

First, it's hard to sufficiently create in my mind that moment at the start. It's something that I find is arrived at through careful storytelling, character development and lots of time spent thinking through the intricacies that make such a moment actually believable.

Second, even if I can sufficiently create that moment in mind, when I arrive at the time when such a realization would make sense, would be expected even, I find myself asking the more basic question: do I want there to be a realization of any sort at all?

Then, I get stuck. I tell myself that a book needs that moment. It needs to have it in order for it to be marketable, interesting, provocative, intelligent, etc. I worry that if I don't have a moment like that, it will look like my writing was lazy or that my thought process was too simple or worse, boring.

But then, I think back to books I've read and enjoyed where I just watched someone live his life. There were no great epiphanies. There was no adventure or secret to discover. It was just me, watching someone live and eat breakfast and drive his car and complain about the mail being late and the way the elevator always get stuck on a certain floor. I think about the everyday slice of life type stories and I think to myself, not that Aristotle had it wrong. I think to myself that this is the kind of story I want to write even if Aristotle was 100% on point.

So...I begin writing and plotting and plotting as I write so that I don't push myself into a moment, a realization that feels contrived or unbelievable. I write in circles and about nothing until finally, I have something. I have a short story. Then I have a novella. After a few chapters more I have a novel. I finish it and I look back at it and you know what I find?

Anagnorisis...smack dab in the middle of my novel...only, it's there because I didn't plan it. It is there and it works, surprisingly and wonderfully, it works. It works because I wrote it by accident. I wrote it by trying to defy Aristotle. I wrote it because even in life the non-moments can be moments. Things DO happen sometimes when we are simply choosing deli-meat. I might be reaching for the same package of corned beef as my nemesis. I might drop the toothbrush I bought into a storm drain on my way to my car, prompting me to meet the man who'd change my protagonist's life. Non-moments are moments, the realizations we are looking for...if only we follow through.

A realization, I now realize, is comrised of a sequence of events...destined events, fate if you will. So maybe Aristotle had it half-right...all stories have this "moment" but it is not just a is a culmination not just an accumulation. Now, I have to start writing toward that end.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I haven't posted a true "post" yet so, I guess today is as good as any.

As the summer nears an end, well, at least from my perspective since school is about to start and football season is about to be here to usher in the fall, I feel the need to take stock of my year so far.

I'm now reading my 28th novel this year. I'm not sure what that says about me, considering I work full time, and a mother of two girls age 5 and under, but, it doesn't feel like I've wasted my time. Honest. I discovered an author that grips me as much as Thomas Hardy did in the contemporary American writer, Philip Roth.

I've always leaned toward American fiction even though my first loves were classic 18th and early 19th century British novelists. But now, I am back to the good ole USofA.

Yep...something about the American spirit, the robustness of it, the manner of speech, the brashness softened only by the hope that can't help but be there. In a sense, it's almost as if the American writer is unaware of just how upbeat even the most despairing or dire of circumstances come across in the writing if only because there is the idea, the notion that, there is "the othere side." In American fiction, that idea is always just beneath the surface.

The central struggle presented in American fiction is the struggle over simply--how do you get there? How does one make it? What exercises in either futility or practicality does one undertake to get to some place of contentment even if not happiness? Because in American fiction that "place" does exist.

I'm not saying that this idea is not true for other countries but it is rather especially true for American fiction from James Fenimore Cooper to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mark Twain to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest even the African-American writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker who, despite the state of America during their writings, still found a way to have hope, to fight for it even. Or Jewish American writers like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth who wrote almost exclusively about Jewish American characters and their struggles to reach that "place" in American culture.

Today, in reading Charles Baxter I see it. I see it even in Robert James Waller or Alice Seebold, writers of completely different genres but nonetheless, the notion of "hope" is there.

Hope is that place. It's where American fiction does what American poetry cannot. It's a map to the other side, filled with not just a voice or of images...but of dialogue, conversations on how to get there.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

So I started a blog. My brother told me I should. My husband said it would be fun. So I started a blog.

I started a blog to keep a scrapbook of my life...sort of, at least the literary/music/cinema parts of it.

I started a blog. My brother made me do it. I started it. For now, that's enough.