Thursday, February 28, 2008

Out of His Shell

Frye boots, a Canon digital camera, a bat house, a blue bird house, and a turtle sculpture. What do they have in common? They're part of the great stuff I got for my birthday. The sculpture, pictured here, is made from recycled parts and a vintage WWII helmet. Our irrationally exuberant bobble-headed terrapin greets guests at our front door...

And now on a more GOOD PEOPLE CHANGING THE WORLD note: USA Today covers "giving circles," including Dining for Women, a powerfully successful group that started here, in my hometown:
A group called Dining for Women started in 2003 with 20 women in Greenville, S.C. They decided to meet once a month for a pot-luck dinner, pool the money they would have spent in a restaurant and give it to an organization that helps women and children in undeveloped countries. They raised $700 at the first meeting and sent it to Women for Women International. By 2005, they had formed a non-profit organization.

"We realized then that we had the support structure for other chapters in other places," said Marsha Wallace, president and one of the founders of the group.

Dining for Women has more than 90 chapters with about 2,200 members nationwide that raise $13,000 to $15,000 each month — all of which is donated to one organization designated for that month, Wallace said.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Few Words About Dialogue

We're discussing dialogue this week in the Creative Writing workshop I lead. There are the usual points to cover, such as this gem: "One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing at once."--Francine Prose, READING LIKE A WRITER; and this one: Dialogue "must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction." --William Sloane, THE CRAFT OF WRITING.

In other words, dialogue should contain subtext as well as text.

Dialogue should not just advance the plot. Speech between characters reveals "emotion within a logical structure," and its purpose in fiction "is never merely to convey information...but it needs simultaneously to characterize, provide exposition, set the scene, advance the action, foreshadow, and/or remind" --Janet Burroway, WRITING FICTION.

And dialogue has to sound like real conversation, although, as Prose mentions in her book, dialogue in fiction is better than "real" dialogue. Fictional dialogue should be an improved, cleaned up, compressed, economical, and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. And yet, it should sound "natural."

Even rote exchanges can call up images. From Burroway: A character who says, "It is indeed a pleasure to meet you" carries his back at a different angle, dresses differently, from a character who says, "Hey, man, what's up?"

What is NOT said is as revealing as what IS said. People in crisis are often at their least articulate. Burroway again: "Dialogue can fall flat if characters define their feelings too precisely and honestly, because often the purpose of human exchange is to conceal as well as to reveal..."

I often recommend students who write fiction (and nonfiction) read poetry to feed their heads with imagery and the power and economy of each word, each line. With dialogue, reading plays helps--screenplays, too. Of course, that's in addition to reading pitch-perfect dialogue from writers such as Charles Portis, who, in his novel, NORWOOD, manages to tell us volumes of information on his characters--their education, background, motivations-- with a few lines of dialogue (and no heavy dialect). Take this exchange, which happens just three pages into the novel:

Norwood Pratt, an ex-marine, is heading back home to Texas on a bus:

...when he awoke he struck up a conversation with a friendly young couple name of Remley. The Remleys had been picking asparagus in the Imperial Valley and were now on their way home with their asparagus money. Traveling with them was their infant son Hershel. Hershel was a cheerful, bright-eyed little fellow. He was very well behaved and Norwood remarked on this.
Mrs. Remley patted Hershel on his tummy and said, "Say I'm not always this nice." Hershel grinned but said nothing.
"I believe the cat has got that boy's tongue," said Norwood.
"Say no he ain't," said Mrs. Remley. "Say I can talk aplenty when I want to Mr. Man."
"Tell me what your name is," said Norwood. "What is your name?"
"Say Hershel. Say Hershel Remley is my name."
"How old are you, Hershel? Tell me how old you are."
"Say I'm two years old."
"Hold up this many fingers," said Norwood.
"He don't know about that," said Mrs. Remley. "But he can blow out a match."
Norwood talked to Mr. Remley about bird hunting. Mrs. Remley talked about her mother's people of near Sallisaw. Hershel made certain noises but said no words as such. Mrs. Remley was not bad looking. Norwood wondered why she had married Mr. Remley. One thing, though...he knew about bird dogs.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Reading Room: Tonight's Authors

Tonight, 7 pm, at The Handlebar: The Reading Room, sponsored the by Emrys Foundation, presents two authors you don't want to miss:

Sebastian Matthews, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program, teaches part-time at Warren Wilson College and edits Rivendell, a place-based literary journal. He is the author of the memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps, and co-editor, with Stanley Plumly, of Search Party: Collected Poems of William Matthews. His poems have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, New England Review, Post Road, Seneca Review, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. Matthews was a recent Bernard De Voto Fellow in Nonfiction at Bread Loaf. His chapbook, Coming to Flood, was published by Hollyridge Press in 2005, and a collection of poems, We Generous, was published by Red Hen Press in February 2007.

John Lane
An expert kayaker and place-based educator, John Lane has had his outdoor adventure prose appear in Outside, American White Water, Canoe, South Carolina Wildlife, National Geographic Books, and many other periodicals. He is the author of the collections of personal essays Weed Time and Waist Deep in Black Water, book-length narrative Chattooga, and Circling Home: Settlement on the Edge of a Southern Flood Plain, a book published last fall. Also a poet and playwright, Lane teaches environmental literature, creative writing, and film at Wofford College. He is the founder, with wife Betsy Teter, journalist Gary Henderson, and photographer Mark Olencki, of the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, SC.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Blogs to Books

From blogs to's one author's experience (and enviable work ethic). "Writing a Book? Piece of least compared to blogging" by Will Leitch (Author of God Save the Fan).
"When I turned in the first draft of God Save the Fan to my editor, I e-mailed him the full manuscript the day it was due. He couldn't have been more surprised if I had shown up at his office wearing a leotard."

Read the article from Publisher's Weekly (1/21/08) here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

You Just Walk the Path

Inspirational words from Richard Bausch. This interview appeared years ago in Writer-- and I regularly share it with my writing students:

So when I sit down to write, I'm not thinking abut pulling stuff out of myself. I'm thinking about going somewhere, walking around, and seeing what I find. And there's never a time when I sit down and it isn't there. You just walk the path. There is a tremendous amount of work you can get done doing that. There is no part of that that's not fun. I never worry about whether or not it's good. I don't care, right then. I'm walking the path...I love William Stafford's advice . Someone asked, 'What do you do about writer's block?' Stafford said, 'Lower my standards and keep on going.' That's secretly such beautiful advice. What you get done really doesn't have only to do with how gifted you are, or how much ability you have; it has to do with your own attitude toward it....I don't really teach writing. I teach patience and toughness, stubbornness and willlinginess to make the mistakes and go on. And the willingness to look like an idiot sometimes. That's the only way any good thing ever get done, it seems to me.
--Richard Bausch

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Gathering

In my stack 0' books:

Anne Enright's The Gathering, which won the Man Booker Prize. The Washington Post has this interview with Enright about her new-found popularity. Although I had this novel on my reading list, I promoted it to my reading stack when I read this dazzling paragraph from the novel:

I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers as they pass. I want to call for an end to procreation with a sandwich board and a megaphone.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

It's the second day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, and I'm still all aflutter. Yesterday, I was happy to file my report online: 15 separate species--including a Great Blue Heron, a red-bellied woodpecker and two downy woodpeckers. I keep my bird feeders stocked year round, though not quiet as heavily in the summer when I have plenty of native plants for them to feast on. Now-- and even better reason to keep-em filled: The NYT Science Section reports a new study on the benefits of "supplemental feeding" (also known as bird feeders):

[birds] "in areas with supplemental feeding laid eggs on average two and a half days earlier than those in areas without extra wintertime food. And on average, about one additional chick per nest survived to fledgling age.

Dr. Bearhop said the extra energy provided by the food could help adults reach breeding fitness a little earlier. And the vitamins and other nutrients could be passed on to the offspring, making them hardier."

And an apt reminder from the Belle of Amherst who found inspiration from her close observation of birds:

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,--
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.

--Emily Dickinson

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hairy or Downy?

That's today's vital question: Hairy or Downy?

Okay, so you're wondering if it's: question #32? As in: When it comes to physical characteristics, you prefer a mate who is...

Waxing option at the Day Spa? (Other than Brazilian.)

That casserole dish of leftovers from your Super Bowl Party in the dark recesses of your fridge?

Nah. It's about peckers.
Hairy or Downy woodpeckers. (What else?)

Tomorrow starts the Great Backyard Bird Count, and I'm gearing up. Have checklist and three fully-stocked birdfeederss (with suet, safflower & sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, and mealworms--more about that tomorrow). Meanwhile, I've got to distinguish between:

the Hairy Woodpecker

and the Downy Woodpecker

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's terrific All About Birds website:
The Hairy Woodpecker is very similar in plumage [to the Downy Woodpecker], but is larger, has a proportionately larger bill, a longer and more distinct black mark on the shoulder, and in most populations, has completely white outer tail feathers. (But beware downies that do not spread their tails and keep the black bars hidden.) For more information on distinguishing these species click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I'm Intrigued... the story behind former truck driver Donald Ray Pollock, the author of Knockemstiff, a collection of connected stories due out next month from Doubleday. Pollack, who quit school at 15, and later earned a degree in English and an MFA, is being touted as "the next important voice in American Fiction."

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Jeffrey Trachtenberg:
"Doubleday is drawing heavily on Mr. Pollock's background in selling the book. In a speech at a luncheon celebrating Knockemstiff last week, his editor, Gerald Howard, described Mr. Pollock as a writer from a different 'class' that is rarely heard from."

Here's an excerpt.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Poet Packs the House Like a Rock Star

It's Monday ...and if you're searching for uplifting news, read this article ("Poet-mania: Mary Oliver's Sold-out Appearance Sparks a Ticket Frenzy on Cragislist") from the Seattle PI's book critic JOHN MARSHALL about Mary Oliver, "a reclusive, 71-year-old poet from Provincetown, Mass., who is known for her direct, positive verse set in the natural world."

Mary Oliver's appearance at the 2,700-seat Schnitzer Concert Hall for Portland Arts & Lectures is SOLD OUT. Craigslist is "the last refuge" for the desperate trying to get a ticket. Says Marshall: "Poet as rock star may be a strange notion outside of places like Russia, but Oliver has become a poetry phenomenon."

I'm a big fan of Mary Oliver's poetry. "The Black Snake" is one of my favorite poems. The imagery, the beautiful imagery! You know that one, right? "Cool and gleaming as a braided whip"...."looped and useless as an old bicycle tire." Here it is:

The Black Snake

When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve--
death, that is how it happens.

Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.

He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Friday, February 8, 2008

Earthly Pleasures

I wanted to give a shout out to my friend Karin Gillespie (aka Karen Neches), whose novel Earthly Pleasures--here's an excerpt--came out this week. Karin will be making some appearances in Georgia and SC-- check out her schedule to see if she's coming to your neighborhood bookstore. This is Karin's fourth book ( three novels under Karin Gillespie and this one under her nom de plume.)

Earthly Pleasures is a Booksense Notable for February-- quite an honor. And what a terrific cover!

Publishers Weekly gushes:
"...Appealingly unorthodox... a heaven where angels lust, drink and follow terrestrial celebrity gossip… A tangled story of cold ambition and true love unspools. Neches’s funny and sweet novel shows that to err is human and angelic as well."
Visit Karin's blog Southern Comfort or her Myspace page for more info. She also has a terrific page for writers, with lots of useful links.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Newspaper Book Editor Bids Adieu

...An Interview with the Charlotte Observer's Departing Book Editor
"My job is like being a match maker, only I'm matching books with reviewers."
The Charlotte Observer --that's Charlotte North Carolina, ya'll--has one of the better book sections around. Of course, these days, the fact that a daily newspaper still has a dedicated book page with reviews and literary news (fresh, not canned), and a literary event calendar is impressive.

For several years, Jeri Krentz, the Charlotte Observer's Reading Life editor, has been a great champion for readers--and authors. (Case in point. Read her column, "A Bumper Crop of Good Books Coming in '08"). Alas, she will soon be leaving her position: "After 27 years at the Observer," she said, "I'm taking a new job. My last day as book editor will be Feb. 22 -- on Feb. 25, I'll start work at the Duke Endowment." Jeri, who has a bachelor's degree in English from Carleton College and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, has worked at the newspaper since she was 23.

I thought it would be interesting to ask Jeri about her role as book editor of the Observer, and she graciously agreed to answer my questions.

How and when did you become editor of the Charlotte Observer book section?

I came to the Charlotte News as a reporter in 1981, straight out of graduate school. The News merged with the Charlotte Observer in 1983 (I believe). In my 27 years with the paper, I've been a police reporter and beach reporter; I've covered higher education and philanthropy; I've written breaking news stories and features. I became book editor in August 2005 -- but the features department head changed to title to Reading Life Editor to broaden my role. I edit book reviews and create the book page, but I also write a weekly column and write news stories about literacy, authors, library trends, etc.

How do you decide what will be reviewed? Do you plan months in advance?
The Observer receives dozens of galleys and books each week. Someone else unpacks the boxes for me and divides the books into stacks of fiction, nonfiction, mysteries and paperbacks. We devote one page of the Arts section each week to books, which allows room for one lead review, one secondary review and three short reviews (along with my weekly column, a best sellers list and a few other short features). I decide months ahead which books will take that lead review spot. Usually it goes to an important author or title that I know people will want to read about. Sometimes, my reviewers at the local colleges will let me know about a big book in their field. Sometimes, the book has a Carolinas connection.

What catches your eye--what advice would you offer book publicists and authors who hope to have their books reviewed?
Because I want to give my page a local flavor, I'm drawn to a Carolinas connection (the author is coming here for a book signing, for example). It's really pointless for a publicist or author to call and ask me if I've received a galley. There are just too many to keep track of.

What kind of reviewers do you work with generally, and how do you decide which books to assign them?
Most of my reviewers teach at local colleges and universities. Others are North Carolina or South Carolina authors. A few work at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. My job is like being a match maker, only I'm matching books with reviewers.

Any changes in store for the Observer 's book page?
The Observer is trying to create an extensive online book page with a mix of resources for book clubs, reviews and news.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Pushing Up Daisies

Here's an incredibly clever way one author is reaching new readers...through a seed and flower catalog. The Park Seed Company's emailed newsletter features a plug for Pushing Up Daisies (Thomas Dunne Books) by Rosemary Harris, "the first in series of mysteries featuring Master Gardener/amateur sleuth, Paula Holliday." The newsletter --emailed to no doubt thousands of customers in North America-- includes a Chapter One download and a way to purchase the book online (along with the seeds and bare root shrubs.) By the way, author Rosemary Harris, like her main character, is a Master Gardener.

The Park Seed newsletter mentions how it all came about:
We first met Author Rosemary Harris when she contacted Park Seed about possibly using one of our daisy images on the cover of the book she was working on. In the end they went with a fun, illustrated cover, but we're pleased to be able to offer our dear subscribers a free sneak peek of the book courtesy of Rosemary and her publisher!
And here's more about the book:

Paula can handle deer, slugs, and the occasional human pest -- but she's not prepared for the mummified body she digs up her first day on a new job! Casual snooping turns dangerous when another body turns up and one of Paula's friends appears to be a suspect.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Real Deal

It begins to feel real when you see it in PM's "new deals." You're invited to my virtual champagne party.

From Publishers Marketplace:
Mindy Friddle's SECRET KEEPERS, set in a small Southern town where, in a weed-swallowed heirloom garden, the story of a tragic figure from the town's past is gradually revealed, unearthing one woman's secret yearnings and sending the conflicted lives of her family in new directions, to George Witte at St. Martin's and Frances Coady at Picador, in a nice deal, for publication in Spring/Summer 2009, by Judith Weber at Sobel Weber Associates (NA)
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