Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flashbacks

I wish I were talking about those scenes we create to hop back in time. Unfortunately, my most recent flashback experience was more the post-traumatic stress disorder variety. At the Columbus Writer's Conference, which was primarily a positive experience, one author's presentation reminded me so much of law school that I got an upset stomach and had to leave the room.

In my first year at The Ohio State University College of Law, each professor assigned three or four cases for each day's class and we came prepared to be asked to recite the facts of the case and the relevance of the case to the class subject.

Rather than calling on some unsuspecting victim, one professor opened his "lecture" by standing behind the podium and saying, "Questions?" Willing masochist after willing masochist raised a hand and asked a question to which Professor Question responded, "Nope. Next." This continued until ten minutes before the class ended.

Eventually, some student asked the "right" question to which Professor Q responded (with an enormous sigh) "I certainly wish someone had asked that to begin with." He then lectured for the remaining ten minutes, attempting to squeeze in fifty minutes of material on the merits of the case. Professor Q repeated this tact every class for two full semesters!

At the writers' conference, when author X began his "lecture" in the same manner, I couldn't take it. We all paid good money to hear authors, editors and agents tell us their methods, not to be belittled with statements such as, "Writing is an art. There is nothing to learn."

Perhaps I missed the point. One of my friends found his presentation refreshing. "I just need to go home and write." While this may be true, I only attend the rare writing conference in order to hear how someone else does it. I can "go home and write" without spending several hundred dollars to hear some lug tell me what I already know.

Or maybe this lumbering author of many novels has such an inferiority complex that he finds it necessary to hide behind an egomaniac ruse. If so, I certainly hope he reads the evaluations which no doubt reflect how ineffective his facade has become.

If I go to the conference next year, I'll pass on his diatribe. I already have recurring nightmares about law school. I don't need any of them brought to life.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Title Woes

I'm thinking of changing the title of the memoir about my father's last year. At the Columbus Writer's Conference, an editor told us, "The title should sell; the subtitle should tell." I'm not sure Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, meets that standard.

Here are some of my other title ideas:

  • Memorial: a Father, a Daughter, and a Whole Bunch of Sand Traps
  • Sand Traps: a Daughter's Memory of her Dad's Last Year
  • The Chaparral Golf Club Curse
  • The Final Round: Dad's Last Year on the Links
  • Putting Out
  • Playing Through
Which one do you like best? Have any other ideas? Please share! The publisher will ultimately have the last word on this, but if we come up with something brilliant, they might go for it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Guarded Optimism

The two days I spent not writing while I attended the Columbus Writers' Conference may have paid off. I'm not jumping up and down, but I'm smiling.

I met editors and agents and had a chance to pitch my memoir, Memorial: Our Last Year on the Links, to one of each. As I explained what the book was about, the agent stared at me blankly until I added, ". . . and most of the book is set on golf courses around the country."

He pulled out his card and told me, "Send a query letter and the first ten pages."

Between my pitch sessions, I had a brief conversation with Jack Heffron of The Writer's Idea Book, fame. I told him about my prior session with the agent and my upcoming session with the editor. Jack said, "Start with the golf. Pound all the information down into two sentences. And tell her it's set in a golf cart, not on golf courses."

I thought I knew how to do this, but that twist - golf cart versus golf courses. Brilliant. I spent some time on the next break coming up with a pitch: "My book is a father daughter story set in a golf cart. The stoic father comes to terms with his impending death and the depressed lawyer daughter heals from her emotional wounds as the two spend his last summer on golf courses in four states."

The editor was initially guarded, but warmed qickly. She said, "I can see this book. Yes. Yes," only qualifying her response with, ". . . since I haven't seen the book itself. . . ." As we closed, several minutes over the alotted time, she discretely handed me her card and said, "Send it to me."

"How many pages?"

She looked confused, "The whole thing. Send it all."

WHEW! I have my work cut out for me. Although Memorial is almost "done," it's nowhere near, DONE. I'm off to a coffeehouse ASAP to begin the refining process with fingers crossed for luck.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Simply Magical

In the opening paragraph of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a series of italicized phrases she wrote immediately following her husband's death, leapt off the page:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
"Pay attention," the italics said. She was teaching me how to read her book. I felt I was in good hands. I made a mental note and continued reading.

In Chapter Two, that first landmine she had planted blew. Without sentiment, while discussing how, one night at dinner, her husband John had forgotten the note cards he used to jot down things he wanted to remember, she dropped one of thoese phrases from the first chapter, You sit down to dinner. Wham! I was thrown back to the raw emotion she had expressed in the first chapter. Wham! I remembered.

Throughout the book, I counted thirty-four such plantings: phrases, bits of dialogue, quotes from literature, place names, movie names, book titles - some italicized, some not. Combined, these thirty-four items were repeated no less than one hundred and four times. In context, each one anchored me in a certain place with a certain person. When Didion exploded it on a later page in the book, my mind snapped back to the time and place which it had referenced and, mid-chapter, Wham!

In Chapter Twenty-One, a chapter made up of two half-pages, Didion nearly writes in code. On page 219, the half-page that ends the chapter, a page of fewer than 150 words, she uses five of these references. Without these having been previously planted, the phrases are meaningless. But with the frame of reference she has provided, they are fists. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! It nearly feels like whiplash, a lyrical, literary whiplash.

Didion's technique, whether conscious or unconscious, mirrors the way the mind moves. Mid-conversation, something a person says will trigger a memory of an event from the past. It will flash in the mind and transport the reader back to that time and place. In this book, Didion takes us along on her memory's ride. The magical nature of her thinking is disturbing, but the magical nature of her prose, delightful.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Novel Writing Conference

Nancy Zafris, fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, emailed me about a novel writing workshop with author Karen Novak. I surfed around and found this post by Claudair at http://www.mystorylives.blogspot.com/

If you are looking for solid feedback on your novel-in-progress in a workshop setting, you might want to consider joining a small group of writers who will gather at the Rondaxe Novel Workshop, to be held the week of October 1, 2006 at a peaceful lakeside home in Old Forge, New York.

The conference is limited to six writers. Novelist Karen Novak, an Ohio-based writer whose books include Five Mile House, will lead the workshop. In addition to round-table discussions, Novak will meet one-on-one with each writer for an in-depth evaluation and critique. Novak has been teaching a similar novel-writing workshop for several years at the Chenango Valley Writers Conference, held at Colgate University.

The conference schedule includes writing each day, open readings in the evenings, and plenty of socializing (cocktails on the dock, cooperative dinner preparation, etc.)

Only two openings are available.

For more information write to Karen Novak at karennov1@aol.com.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

P.H.K.L.

I hate to admit that this is not the strangest thing I've ever seen, but it comes close.

Perhaps the Pink Hello Kitty Laptop is the true secret of writing. And all this time I thought bumglue was the key.

For more photos and instructions on how to make your own P.H.K.L. visit http://www.exonome.com/fj/phkl/

Monday, August 21, 2006

Peer Pressure is Awesome Awesome Awesome!

I actually hate the word "Awesome," but this weekend was, well, Awesome!

Last year, I rented Spring Hollow "Lodge" at Sharon Woods Metropark (it's called a lodge, but there are no facilities for "lodging") for a writing workshop to be held this past weekend. Mid-June, I began having second thoughts. Not only would I rather be writing, I was going to be so busy with MFA work that I doubted I'd have time to adequately prepare.

Instead of offering the class, I asked my writer friends if any of them might want to join me for a weekend "Writeth-On." Many showed interest. Eight women (nine including me) showed up. As I said, it was awesome!

We had two rooms. The big "conference" room served as the quiet work space. We each had a large table and a window view. The second room which is a living/kitchen area functioned as the eating and chatting space. Double doors separate the two areas.

From 8AM to 8PM Saturday and from 8AM to 4PM Sunday, we worked and worked and worked. I wish I had taken photos of us all with our laptops and printers, meditation cushions and yoga mats. One woman brought her office chair from home. Most of the time the only sounds were the clicking of laptop keys and the chirping of birds. Did I say it was Awesome?

I certainly hope to repeat this "Awesome" adventure. Have you created a writing retreat for you and your friends? If so, tell me about it. If not, when will yours be?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

To The Woods . . .

Here's my report: As promised, I headed to Caribou at Tremont and worked on not only two scenes, but three scenes on the memoir, Memorial, that I'm writing about the year my father died.

Today and tomorrow I am holing up for two days at a lodge at a local metropark with some writer friends to work, work, work (and also eat a bit too!). My track record for cabin getaways is not very good. I get away and don't get a lick of writing done. So I'll soon let you all know whether a getaway that includes peer pressure works.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Anything to Avoid Writing

Yesterday I finished writing up thirteen pages of notes in an attempt to analyze Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. The paper I need to write on the topic will be between two and five pages. Hmmm.

This morning, after walking the dog, I started highlighting Anne LaMott's Hard Laughter. I also checked my email six times, did some insurance paperwork and ate lunch. I'm considering going outside to begin pulling weeds in the yard. Hmmmm.

Think perhaps I am procrastinating? Um. Yes. Okay. Here's my promise to you. Before tomorrow, I will actually edit two scenes from the memoir. That may not sound like much, but it's more than I've done in five days.

Scout's honor. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Take a Wild Guess

Okay writers. You're pretty sharp. Help me out here.



What are these things?



Pens with hidden cams?



NOPE. . . Try again.



Any wild guesses now?

No clue?...

You've just seen our future...



These will replace your PC...



In the revolution of miniature computers, the scientists are ahead with bluetooth technology.



This pen instrument produces both the monitor as well as the keyboard on flat surfaces from where you can just carry out the normal operations you do on your desktop.

Are you ready for this????

I CAN'T WAIT!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Beyond My Wildest Dreams!

Wahoo! The Caribou at Tremont and Zollinger (soon to be joined by delicious DaVinci's) is adding outdoor seating and, pay attention writers, WI-FI!!! Wanna find me? That's your best bet. WAHOO! WAHOO WAHOO WAHOO!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Beloved 'Bou

Today I ran into a friend who told me that my favorite Caribou Coffeehouse (the one at Tremont & Zollinger), the place where I do much of my writing (since I have not yet been able to train myself to write at home), was being demolished. She had driven past and the place was closed off with yellow tape and there were bulldozers in the parking lot.

"They've torn out the flower beds and I'm afraid the building is next!"

We both knew that Zuppa, a pasta and sub place, had moved down the street and that DaVinci's, an Italian place, was moving in, but Caribou?

"I was just there Sunday! No one said a thing!"

I was across town when I heard this news and spent the day agitated and forlorn. I remembered a blue day when I lived in Taos, New Mexico, driving up to Taos Coffee Company and finding the place dark and empty. A sign on the door read, "To our loyal patrons. Finances have required us to close our doors. Best of luck. The Owners." I'd sat in my car and cried. I'd written for months about the wonderful days my writing group had spent in that small space eating bagels and drinking lattes. It had been a haven in the mountains and it was gone.

On the way home this afternoon, with great trepidation, I drove a few miles out of my road to pass the Tremont 'Bou and see the disaster for myself. As I came upon the scene, I saw the yellow tape, the bulldozers, the missing flowerbeds. I felt a pain well up in my heart and nearly let out a sob until I looked into the windows. The lights were on. Patrons were sitting at the tables, patrons who looked happy. There was a barista in her black Caribou apron, a barista who looked happy. The patrons were drinking coffee! I took a closer look. The parking lot had been torn up and a few cars were parked haphazardly around the lot. New cement berms shone in the sun.

I don't know what they're doing. I hope they're putting in outdoor seating. Plentiful outdoor seating has been an added bonus of Columbus' smoking ban. Maybe they're just fixing the problematic parking situation and we will no longer have to dodge each other as we jockey for spots. I don't know. But they're definitely still in business and still brewing some of my favorite java. My writing can continue!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Dancing in Dialogue at Larry's Party

I'm finished writing my annotation to Larry's Party, Carol Shield's award-winning novel. (hurrah!) Thought I'd share what I learned from her about writing dialogue.

In the final chapter, “Larry’s Party,” after which the book is named, the author captures the essence of a dinner party - conversation. In this passage which includes nine different characters, Shields writes ten consecutive pages (pp. 306-315) of pure unattributed dialogue while ensuring that the reader always intuitively knows who is speaking. Like a maze which can only be understood from above, Shields’ feat can only be comprehended from a distance.

Sheilds starts slowly, like a juggler with just three balls in the air, adding character after character until all nine are present. The party begins with Larry and his girlfriend, Charlotte, at Larry’s house in Chicago where the dinner party takes place. The doorbell rings and Charlotte heads to the kitchen to check on the lamb leaving Larry to answer the door. Shields re-introduces Larry’s second wife, Beth, a character we already know. As each guest or group enters, Shields uses an extra line of space to symbolize the opening of the door.

Patterns of speech serve as tags. Larry, who’s speech is sparse and direct, makes most of the introductions. “Samuel Alvero, this is Beth Prior.” (p. 306). “Let me introduce Garth and Marcia McCord.” (p. 306) “This is Dorrie Shaw-Weller.” (p. 308) “And please meet a friend of mine, Charlotte Angus.” (p. 308). “And this is Beth Prior.” (P. 308).

Larry, Charlotte, and Beth are joined by Samuel Alvero, a Spanish horticulturist who is working with Larry on a hedge maze. (Larry designs mazes for a living). Conveniently for the dialogue, English is Alvero’s second language which gives the reader label with which to track the dialogue. Phrases such as, “I am enchanted to meet you,” (p. 306) followed relatively quickly by “This is enchanting,” (p. 308) show his limited vocabulary. At times he cannot follow the conversation.

When Marcia McCord says, “I love New York, but these days I love it tragically.” Samuel replies, “Love it how?” showing that he had difficulty understanding the conversation. Later, as Samuel slowly realizes that he’s meeting two women who are Larry’s “wives,” his confusion is a clue.

Larry’s girlfriend, Charlotte, speaks effusively, nervously, almost babbling at times. Not waiting for Larry to introduce her, she introduces herself to Samuel and Beth and then blathers on for several lines:

I’m Charlotte Angus. Sorry, I was busy in the kitchen when you - you must be Beth. Well, well! It’s so good to see you, so wonderful you could come, I mean. And you’re Samuel. Larry’s been telling me about you, what a marvel you’ve been these last busy weeks, working day and night getting ready for the opening. (p. 306)

She repeatedly passes the dialogue torch to Larry with, “Is that the doorbell again, Larry?” (p. 306) and similar phrases. Charlotte is also frequently interrupted

At times the subject of a character’s speech serves as the clue. Larry’s ex-wife Beth is pregnant and this information helps the reader track when she is speaking. Referring to the baby, Beth says, “He’s got his own swimming pool in there.” (p. 308). When Larry offers the guests champagne, Beth replies, “. . . Champagne and fetus don’t mix. . . .” (p. 309)

Marcia McCord refers frequently to her therapist and she and her husband Garth sometimes bicker with each other. Samuel talks of his deceased wife. Charlotte speaks of her late husband, Derek.

Samuel Alvero sometimes speaks in Spanish or refer to his homeland, “Your honeymoon? Ah, in Spain we say luna da miel. Direct Translation. I always feel happy when I find direct translation. . . .”

The information that a character already knows and brings to the table can also serve as a clue. When Larry speaks of his father making tea, Dorrie replies, “. . . I don’t remember your dad lifting a finger in the kitchen.” (p. 311). It’s not Larry’s sister Midge because Dorrie says, “your dad,” as opposed to “our dad,” and it’s not Beth because Larry’s dad was not alive during most of their marriage. Dorrie was the closest to his parents. None of the other characters except Dorrie would have that information.

Through invisible tags and tics: timing, speech patterns and the subject of each speaker’s dialogue, Shields’ skill renders speech tags unnecessary. Her technique makes the reader feel as if she is one of the guests, eating the lamb and the lima beans with the others.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hold the pickle, Hold the lettuce. . .

Due to temperament (right-brain heavy) and training (writing practice courtesy of Natalie Goldberg), I'm the type of writer who spins out tons of material and then works backward to make that material fit within a narrative scheme. I don't think I knew what a plot point was until last year. My friend Tania said:

It's as if you were trying to put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle and you had 100 extra pieces from several other puzzles on the table as well. Before you can start putting the puzzle together, you have to separate the pieces that fit your puzzle and set the others aside.

By contrast, many of my colleagues at Goddard's creative writing program take an opposite approach. They might start, as I do, with the germ of an idea, an image or a snippet of conversation. But from there they are more likely to plod along, figuring out, "what happened next," and so on and so forth until the story reaches its culmination. When they're done with a first draft, they have a summary of a story which they then need to flesh out with scenes and description in future drafts. In our puzzle analogy, they would start by pulling out all the edge pieces first and putting them together.

There's no right or wrong way to write. What's important is knowing your process. Right brain or left? Creative or logical? Plain or peanut? As long as you're writing, it's all good.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Almost Done with Book #1

I chose Larry's Party by Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields as the first book to tackle from my mile-long reading list for the semester. I'm on the last chapter which I hope to finish today. (Yes. Yes. I know. I thought I'd finish it a few days ago.)

I'm no critic, but I'm learning a thing or two. Shields drops clues into each chapter before an event happens so that I'm not caught off guard by a sudden event. For example, before Larry's first wife flips out, Shields gives us clues to her state of mind. I don't want to be specific in case any of you read the book, but it's progressive throughout the chapter.

In most of her chapters, Shields also drops a clue as to what the primary focus of the next chapter will be, again, so I'm already prepared for the topic and want to know more about it. In the chapter, "Larry So Far," Shields drops in hints about Larry's son, Ryan. The next chapter is, "Larry's Kid." This keeps me turnig the pages and makes me want to dive into the next chapter.

Shields also uses lists wonderfully. Little drawers suddenly pop open in the text revealing a whole world of their own and then they close and we move on with the narrative.

To lull himself back to sleep, and keep himself from disturbing Beth - who sleeps a profound, saintly, and unsedated seven hours - he lets his mind wander through the seven spacious rooms of his house, the fastened doors, the square entrance, the stained glass in the hallway, the dining room weighted with its beamsed ceiling and side lights, the living room and its twin bay windows and smell of cold ashes from the fireplace grate.

And then, if sleep continues to resist him . . . [another list].
It's like looking into his life through a window.

Shields has created a book that mirrors its main character, Larry Weller. As I read, I experience a peaceful, easy sense of being in the world. There are moments of disturbance and some surprises, but I am primarily comfortable and easy with the story, as most of the characters in the book are comfortable with easy-going Larry. She has personified him through the narrative. No easy task.