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.