Thursday, December 31, 2009

Craft: Writing About Emotional Events

From my class on Tone: Emotion and Humor

A few tips to keep in mind when writing about conflict or violence:
  • Characters in a crisis often observe small, random, details.
[Ever been in a car accident, even a fender bender? Time seems to slow down, you remember the oddest things-- the policeman's scuffed shoes, the menacing smell of gasoline, the jarring cheerfulness of the radio, still playing light rock.]
  • Concrete, precise details create the effect of intensity.
Here's an example from Jane Smiley’s novel, A Thousand Acres. A wife leaves her husband near the end of the novel, surprising herself, her husband and the reader. Notice the pedestrian, rather ordinary scene –making dinner, worrying over the stove—and how the simmering emotions are handled in a controlled, vivid, unsentimental way as they intensify and –pardon the pun—boil over:

I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil, then went out in the garden and picked some brussels sprouts off the stalk. If you leave them though the fall, through the frosts, they sweeten up. . . all my motions were familiar—running an inch of water in an old pot, piercing the bottoms of the sprouts with a fork. I turned down the heat under the potatoes. Ty cam in, stepping out of his boots and hanging his insulated coverall by the door. I said, “Supper will be ready in twenty minutes.”
    I set the pan of sprouts over a low flame.
    He finished washing his hands, dried them carefully on a dish towel, and walked out of the room. I turned don the oven to broil and bent down to see if it had lit, because sometimes the pilot light went out.  I said, “One new thing we could get would be a range. This one is a menace.”
    He was back in the room. He said, “I don’t necessarily think this is the right time to get a new range.”
    “Well, maybe it will just blow up, then, and put us out of our misery.”
    He heaved an exasperated sigh, then said, “I’ll bring the range over from your father’s place tomorrow. That’s pretty new.”
    …Steam rose from the boiling potatoes and the simmering brussels sprouts. I remembered the broiler, which was now surely heated enough, and I opened the oven door and set the chops under the heat.
    We were silent. The contained roar of the gas and then, a minute later, the first sizzling of meat juices, took on the volume and weight of oracular mutterings, almost intelligible. With a feeling of punching through a wall, I said, “I need a thousand dollars.”
    Ty widened the opening. “I have a thousand dollars in my pocket, from the rent on my place. Fred brought it by last night, but I didn’t have a chance to put in the bank.”
    I held out my hand. He took a wad of money out of his pocket. It felt large and solid in my palm, larger and solider than it was. I went to the hall tree and took down my coat and scarf, then I went to the key hook and took the keys to my car, and with the meat broiling in the oven and the potatoes and sprouts boiling on the stove, I walked out the door. When he saw, I suppose, that I really meant to get in and drive away, Ty yelled, “I gave my life to this place!”
    Without looking around at him, I yelled back, “Now its yours!” The night was dark already, and moonless. I stumbled over a rut in the yard that threw me against the cold metal skin of the car. I reached for the door handle, but the money was still in my hand, so I thrust it into the pocket of my coat.
    In Mason City, I ate a hot dog at the A and W.
    In St. Paul, I found a room at the YWCA. They didn’t ask any questions when I didn’t write down a home address on the registration slip.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year, New Leaf

There's nothing like the clean-slate, turn-over-a-new-leaf feel of New Year's Day.

I love making resolutions, and sometimes I manage to keep a few.

The key is to start with small changes. Like the Spanish proverb says:  "Habits are first cobwebs, then cables." [Thanks to Zen Habits for pointing this out.]

I'm already thinking about what my list of resolutions will be. This year, I may limit them to six-- I  really like the 6 Changes Method.

Writers:  I also recommend perusing  C. M. Mayo's guest post,"New Year's Resolution: Write that Book! (12 Great Tips)" on Christina Baker Kline's blog A Writing Life.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter walks

The shortest, coldest days of the year are upon us, but I still do my best to walk in the evenings. It helps to have a dog who lifts my wrist from the laptop with his cold nose at 4 pm sharp to remind me it's time for our daily constitutional. Last night, at a nearby park, just as the sun was setting, I took this picture of the kind, dependable, solid trees above us.

There's just something about trees...

Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.
Rabindranath Tagore

In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful.
Alice Walker 

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
Robert Louis Stevenson  

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Short of It

The long and the short of it: brief, economical, tight communication is in.

Like Pecha Kucha.

You've never heard of it? I hadn't either, until last summer when I was asked to do one for the SC Arts Commission. According to the Pecha Kucha site, it's "a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images forward automatically and you talk along to the images." It was originally used by architects because "they talk too much."

I put together a Powerpoint presentation on "sense of place"-- how my surroundings informed the setting of my fiction. I used my own photos. 20 photos for 20 seconds each.

If you get the chance to attend or participate in Pecha Kucha, Do It. It's addictive.  Take a look at a few examples here.  I like the Wayward Plants presentation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Social Networking and Writers...

My guest post today for A Good Blog is Hard to Find:

Welcome to the Shiny Happy Digital Age*

by Mindy Friddle

* This title is not ironic. I really believe our new digital age is full of opportunity.

A few years ago, it was considered "quaint" for an author to have a website. Now, it's a must. The "planks" of our author platforms aren't just our published works, newspaper columns, radio gigs--they're Facebook, Twitter, networking.

Take Twitter, for example. Yeah, I hear you groaning. Some of you, anyway. Twitter is a little hard to get used to at first. "Why should I Tweet that I just ordered a pizza?" a friend of mine asked. "Who cares?" Well, nobody. But if your Tweet is "The pizza delivery guy is a dead ringer for Brad Pitt. The green mohawk is a poor disguise." That's a little more interesting. READ MORE

Monday, December 14, 2009

Prickly Quote

Here is my cactus garden to remind me of SUN as we approach the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

They grow slowly, they are patient.

Cacti are prickly but calm. They are grouped, but don't touch; I sense their fierce independence.

I have them on my desk, by the window, near my laptop. Now I know why:

Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it's the answer to everything. To ''Why am I here?'' To uselessness. It's the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it's a cactus.”
-- Enid Bagnold (English Writer, 1889-1981)

Friday, December 11, 2009

RIP Kirkus

From The Times They Are A- Changin' file:

Kirkus Reviews is closing. They were "reliably cantankerous," but a good book review from them meant a lot-- to booksellers and librarians, especially.

My first novel The Garden Angel was reviewed favorably by Kirkus-- got one of those coveted starred reviews. I've always been grateful for that vote of confidence. THAT was a happy day.

Here's an innovative move-- a good change: According to an article in the Books section of the New York Times, The Atlantic will start selling individual short stories:
Priced at $3.99 each, the stories, which will bear the Atlantic logo, are exclusively available on the Kindle, Amazon’s electronic reader, and will not appear in the print version of the magazine. The Atlantic’s editors plan to offer about two Kindle stories every month.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tooting My Horn: Press Clips

Welcome to my virtual press clippings page. I'm grateful for the ink-- I love when the media covers books and authors.

This just in: An interview with me [about family secrets] in the Spartanburg Herald Journal here.

I'm so looking forward to reading tomorrow night-- Monday, Dec 7 for the Hub City Writers Project at The Showroom, 149 S. Daniel Morgan Ave., Spartanburg, SC. What a great organization!

And from Skirt-- an interview and book review of Secret Keepers.

The photo here, which appears in skirt, was taken by John Fowler.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Taking a Breather

What's good about Thanksgiving? You can be grateful for everything, and realize what a looooong list that is. You can step out of routine, even for a day.

A little micro-sabbatical is a good thing. That's my excuse, anyway.

Take a breather.
Because sometimes 'you need to let the toilet tank fill up.'

And drop your schedule, let your tasks go ...let the mind go fallow-- for a day or so.
No emailing, no Tweeting, just a wee bit o' blogging.

Read, eat & drink, take walks, read, read, drink, read. Repeat as necessary.

Speaking of recent reads:

I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and loved it. A thriller, a crime novel, a page-turner, set in Sweden. I'm just sorry the author didn't live to see it published.

Also read Julia Glass's The Whole World Over. Compelling, too. Saga is my favorite character.

I expect to finish a classic horror novel tonight [yep, genre-wise, my reading list is a smorgasbord], The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. How did I miss reading this? What an exquisite, creepy, entertaining novel!

And to leaven the darkness, I'm ploughing through Jill McCorkle's gem of a short story collection, Going Away Shoes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Creating a Sense of Place

Nothing happens nowhere. Characters don’t live in a vacuum. That would suck!

Weather, locale, geography, culture, period, history, time/season—all create a sense of place. Setting--the time and place in which a story, play, or novel occurs--is one of my favorite craft elements.


I think Georgia O'Keeffe said it best: "One day seven years ago I found myself saying to myself — I can't live where I want to — I can't go where I want to go — I can't do what I want to — I can't even say what I want to … I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint* as I wanted to." *Substitute the word "write" for "paint"...and you, um, get the picture.

Here are a few masterful examples:

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale: A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been take out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera: Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated the conditions of honorable decadence in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino had been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best-kept mansions, and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of siesta. Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.
Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams: He’d longed to see an oak tree, a big oak with layers of limbs and summer leaves moving in wind . . . he’d wanted to see that, and women in dresses and stockings and heels. The palm trees were strangest at night because they were so big and womanly, tossing themselves and sighing, while the women in the camp wore fatigues and boots. 41st Engineers had arrived to construct the ramp and the airstrip, and the native men had still worn grass skirts. The skirts rustled as the dark men walked, their flat-footed storkish gaits rustling the grass in a way that was stern rather than girlish. . .The natives were in the camp at all hours and the skirts came to seem natural above their early hairless, muscled calves, natural on them rather than on the women, so that the outward things distinguishing men and women lost meaning. You noticed instead the wrist of a Red Cross girl, narrow and flat in the masculine greenish cuff of a fatigue shirt. The whole world was turned around like that. . .
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye: School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zicks’ Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow… Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice.
Robert Morgan, Gap Creek: Where somebody has buried cabbage, all you see is the roots sticking out of the ground like pigtails. Cabbages are buried upside down. I looked in the stubble along the edge of the garden, and in the edge of the orchard beyond the hogpen. There was loose dirt and weedstalks where the taters had been dug up, but I didn’t see cabbage roots. I searched along the pasture fence and didn’t see no buried heads there either.
Brock Clarke, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: There were no trees anywhere—it was as though Camelot had been nuked or had been the brainchild of the logging industry maybe—and each house was exactly the same except that some had powder blue vinyl siding and others had desert tan. There were elaborate wooden playgrounds in the backyards and mini-satellite dishes on every roof, and each driveway was a smooth carpet of blacktop and there wasn’t a sidewalk crack to trip over because there were no sidewalks, and each house had a garage that was so oversized it could have been its own house.

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles: It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On works-in-progress

Is there any wonder why a Work in Progress is also known as a WIP?

Because it stings, my pretties. It stings. It flays, it smarts. You think-- this WIP is tearing me to shreds! I can't go on... Help me, help me. This draft is killing me! Yes, you have a regular ol' pity party. That's before you can even think about how you're going to have to whip it good, into shape, shape it up...

A rough, rough chunk of something I've been working stinging WIP:

How were we going to raise these children without a man? Without much at all? We were house poor, I knew that’s what they called us, but I thought of us as home rich. I always will.

We had a big vegetable garden and Azie and I canned and put up food all summer. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep, I stood by your bedrooms listening to your steady breaths, and I tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen. In the pantry, I ran my hands across the shelves of fig preserves and apple butter and stewed tomatoes. Those murky jars were like gold to me, an abundance that would get us through. I’d even go down to the basement some nights, tiptoe over to the deep freezer in the shadowy corner, a box like a coffin, but I would open it, and there was light and life—heaps of frozen corn and string beans, bags of okra and carrots, peas and butter beans. In that way, I kept an inventory of our blessings and I knew we would be all right.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chasing Butterflies: Nabokov

Continuing on the topic of the gritty work of process... on the cogs and wheels of grinding out drafts...on HOW one goes about writing a novel [and an ode to the usefulness of index cards]:

Vladimir Nabokov , lepidopterist, left behind an unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, when he died. It's just been published-- the fragments of it, anyway, as David Gates notes in his review today in the NYT Book Review.

The most poignant detail is Nabokov's struggle to finish the manuscript, to capture the vivid vision of the novel --like one of his treasured, rare butterflies-- and splay it on the page: “I kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible..."

This novel isn't even half-baked. Apparently, it's still clumps of dough. But fascinating to scholars and to writers who will seize the chance to muse over the raw chunks, and glimpse, perhaps, how Nabokov worked:
He would customarily 'envisage a novel in his mind complete from start to finish before writing it down' — on 3-by-5 cards, which allowed him to work on any section he wanted to, then place it 'in the sequence he had foreseen, among the stack already written.' A transcription of . . . handwritten notecards (complete with grammatical and spelling errors), [are] arranged in [this novel in] sensible, if debatable, order, but facsimiles of the cards themselves, perforated so they can be detached from the book and reordered by scholars who think they know better, or by general readers with time on their hands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Writing Daily

Isak Dinesen
Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.
Isak Dinesen

Words of wisdom from Isak...a succinct way of advising one should write without expectations, "relinquishing the fruit of action," in Bhagavad Gita terms. The joy in performing an action is much greater than the joy you get from the fruit of the action.

Of course, Isak is also quoted as saying, "A great artist is never poor."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

PW Head Scratcher

From the WTF? file...

A real ball-- I mean head scratcher.

Publishers Weekly announces its Top Ten Books of 2009. Not one woman author on the list. Really, PW? Really?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Novel Ways to Write a Novel

Colored string, highlighters, bulletin boards, subway rides, voice recorded software, bathtubs, 1940's Royal typewriters, park benches, piles and piles of index cards, 14-pt courier font, snatches of eavesdropped conversation on cocktail napkins, Mac laptops, rat-infested basement apartments, refurbished studios, blue exam notebooks, magazine photo collages...

All part of the novel writing experience...and it is an Experience, capital E, according to this WSJ article, How to Write A Great Novel. What a fascinating look at the range of ways novelists--from Junot Diaz, Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, Richard Powers, Laura Lipman, and more...get 'er done.

One of the online comments followed up with a perfect quote from Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Owls.. and two movies

Right before dawn, 5:45 AM, there's a hoot owl that announces himself near my bedroom window.

He sounds like, Whooooo Coooooks for Youuuuu? Who Cooooooks for Youuuuu?

His call is authoritative and spooky...mournful and powerful.

I heard someone once say they mistook an owl's call for a woman in distress. "I nearly called the authorities. I just pictured some naked, mad woman out there, screaming for help." Once you hear an owl, you don't forget it.

Two movies out: one I recommend, the other...not so much.

Bright Star-- a must see. Written and directed by Jane Campion. A love story about the short, brilliant life of John Keats and the girl next door, but more than that, an ode to the power of poetry. You'll come home wanting to re-read Keats...dig up that old college anthology on the Romantic Poets.

Where the Wild Things Are...I love the book, of course.And I'm a fan of director Spike Jonze's work, particularly Being John Malkovich. But I guess I'm one of the few not wild about the movie. It has its captivating moments, but it struck me as violent, anger-fueled, testoterone heavy...and sad. Entirely the point, I suppose. But hitting owls with rocks? Chopping down trees? Rock fights? Oh, boys, all you talk about is war, war, war. I dunno. I preferred Pan's Labyrinth-- a violent tale centered around a child, but in the end redemptive, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Radical Revisions

I promised to touch on some highlights of Lauren Groff's seminar, "After the First Draft." The three-hour seminar on Sunday was sponsored by the Writing Room and the Emrys Foundation. Lauren is the author of the NY Times Bestselling novel The Monsters of Templeton and the prize winning short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds. But you knew that, right?

Lauren had some terrific things to say about revision-- re-visioning-- your draft.

For example, she recommends several "radical ideas" for seeing your work in a new light. From her lecture and handout:

--Turn over your finished stories and start anew. "This is what I do with at least two drafts of everything. Believe it or not, it makes your work stronger, and teaches you to not be attached to the individual text. If there is a metaphor or moment in your first draft that you love and want to hold on to, it may not be necessary if you don’t remember to put it into the second draft. Plus, you can go through the first and cannibalize it for the good stuff."
--Get out the scissors, and cut each paragraph out. "Put the paragraphs in order on the floor, so that you can see your work as a whole, and then shift them around, so that they’re in the proper order. Flannery O’Connor used to do this."
--"If you write by computer, on the draft that has all structural and character questions addressed (the draft in which you’re only concentrating on language), print it out and rewrite by hand, line by line, bearing down hard on your language. Then rewrite back onto your computer.

Sound time consuming? Lauren says these methods save her tremendous amounts of time, by forcing her to see her drafts in a fresh way, and letting the story that wants to be told reveal itself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lauren Groff and Deno Trakas read tonight

If you're in the Palmetto State [or even NC], don't miss two fine writers reading from their work tonight for the Reading Room, the Handlebar. 7 pm. In a BAR. With Q&A. Books available for purchase. btw, Lauren gave a great seminar yesterday, on "After the First Draft." More about that--and some great tips-- tomorrow.

Lauren Groff grew up one block from the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York. She graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, including The Atlantic Monthlyand Ploughshares, and in the anthologies Best AmericanShort Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She received the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton (February 2008), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Bird, is a collection of stories. Both books are published by Hyperion/Voice.

Deno Trakas has supported and been supported by Hub City since its first project and is featured in Hub City’s New Southern Harmonies, a collection of short stories. He has published fiction and poetry in more than two dozen journals, including The Oxford American and The Louisville Review. He is the author of two chapbooks, The Shuffle of Wings and Human & Puny. His novel, After Paris, was a finalist for the James Jones Award for a First Novel, and his play, The Old Man and the Tree, won Harvey Jeffrey’s Original One-act Play Contest at Lander University. Trakas has a master’s degree from the University of Tulsa and PhD from the University of South Carolina. An English professor at Wofford College, he serves as director of the writing center and coordinator of the creative writing program.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Handling Criticism...

My guest post on the assigned topic of "criticism" at A Good Blog is Hard to Find:


Avoid looking for it.

Stop Googling yourself! Especially late at night when you think no one is looking. You won’t go blind or grow hair on your palms—well, probably not—but it’s habit forming…and after a while, the thrill is gone, anyway. Save your blocks of isolation for writing--not reading about your writing. ...CONTINUE READING...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ode to Book Clubs

I met with three book clubs this week, three days in a row.

It's a great gig-- meeting with people who read and talk about books, ask intriguing questions, ask you to sign their books...and [often] drink wine.

Pictured here is a book club from Anderson, SC. They drove all the way to the Coffee Underground in Greenville to meet with me on Wednesday. The nice waiter took this photo so I could be in the picture, too. [That's me in front with the circle necklace--it's made of recycled cobalt bottle glass from the wonderful "outsider art & funky jewelry" Christopher Park Gallery...TMI I know.]

Monday, October 12, 2009

Homer & Langley

Finished E.L. Doctorow's latest novel, Homer & Langley...and it's around here somewhere, among the stacks of newspapers, under the magazines, grand pianos, baby carriages, cardboard boxes...kidding. Kidding.

Loosely based on a pair of famous hoarders, the Collyer brothers, the novel is sad but intriguing, a study of eccentrics [with a fiction writer's eye], and how they fascinate. Especially wealthy eccentrics who hoard, or opt out of tradition and BIG ASS QUOTE "normal" BIG ASS UNQUOTE life. If you're a fan of the documentary Grey Gardens, the biography, The Secret History of the Lonely Doll, the novel, Housekeeping, as I am, you'll want to read Homer & Langley.

On an interview on CBS News about his latest novel, Doctorow mentions that he still finds writing difficult. "I try to write 500 words if I can. That's an enormous achievement usually."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Inherent Intelligence of Wildness

In last week's Novel Writing class, we focused on creating compelling characters. I encouraged everyone to note how telling details, yearnings, inner conflicts help build complex characters.

Trolling for character sketches? The obituary pages never fail to offer up fascinating characters....I mean people.

Case in point: Today's obit from the NYT about a Zen abbot and photographer:
He set up an institute to apply Zen principles to environmental matters, hoping to bring people closer to “the inherent intelligence of wildness.” He also began a program to teach Zen to prison inmates...
The monastery [he helped found] fit right into a Catskills spiritual scene that already included Zen, Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, yoga and various New Age centers. Abbot Loori decreed that 80 percent of the 230 acres he had just bought would have to remain “forever wild,” which meant no manicuring of the landscape.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Introduce a Rock Star

The scene: yesterday's Book Your Lunch author series. A sold-out crowd.

I had the honor of introducing Ron Rash, whose prize-winning, break-out novel SERENA is just out in paperback.
Besides the usual "he was born in....he holds a degree from...he's the author of..." yadda yadda stuff, I wanted to add a little zip, especially because I've known Ron since way before he up and got famous.

An excerpt from my intro of said lit rock star:
SERENA has been described as "a gothic tale of greed, corruption, and revenge with a ruthless, powerful, and unforgettable woman at its heart, set amid the wilds of 1930s North Carolina."

Ron has said SERENA was the most challenging of his novels to write. I believe his quote was “it about killed me.” About SERENA, he has said, “While there have been many novels about women who have wielded great power within a family, how many have been about a woman who is a ‘captain of industry,’ especially in novels set in the past? This aspect of Serena made her even more intriguing to me.”

And intriguing to a slew of readers and critics, too:
SERENA was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States.
The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) named it Book of the Year in July.
SERENA Made New York Times literary critic Janet Maslin’s list of her 10 Favorite Books of 2008—no small feat.

For those of us locally, regionally, who have for decades admired Ron’s work as a poet and fiction writer—the fact that he is is being recognized nationally—internationally—well, we say finally. For the yankees to fawn over him—The New York Times no less— we say what took ya’ll so long?

After reading from SERENA, Ron took questions from the audience. A few highlights:

ONE FOOT IN EDEN, Ron's first novel, has just been translated and released in France, to high acclaim, although just how Appalachian-speak gets translated in French is, shall we say, curious. One French critic referred to Ron as "the bumpkin writer"... the term "bumpkin" apparently used with no disparity, but with sincerity... like "mystery" writer.

Serena, the character, is based in part on Lady Macbeth and Queen Elizabeth. You many have noticed she speak in iambic pentameter.

Serena is a villainous character, even evil, as Ron admits. Like most villains, HOW they chose evil is not important, and Ron notes that exploring why-- childhood incidents, for example-- diminishes them. Evil characters are mysterious, because evil is beyond description. Ron pointed out that when Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter's past, and how it drove him to his murderous deeds, Hannibal became less interesting. You can't humanize evil, perhaps.

Ron thinks of his first drafts as clods of clay-- awful at first, barely readable-- to be shaped with subsequent drafts. I was happy to hear's my process, too, and one I recommend in my classes-- the whole $%#$@! first draft thing.

All in all, a splendid event! A looooong line of readers to sign Ron's books, too. Even the $8 parking ticket waiting for me on my ancient Volvo wagon outside did not dampen my spirits.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fall Garden equals Middle-Age

The harvest is in, the full bloom is near fading, seedheads rattling.

The hummingbirds have stopped buzzing through, loading up on nectar for their migration to Central America... a few Monarchs flutter by.

Autumn is poignant.

Shown here: swamp sunflower, cosmos, gourds

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

SIBA Panels and Spicy Readings

The Southern Independent Booksellers Association held their annual trade show in my fair town over the weekend. I was lucky enough to be on a panel--South Carolina Writers--with novelists Nicole Seitz [Saving Cicadas, out Dec. 1] and Mary Alice Monroe [Last Night Over Carolina]. That's us pictured here: from left, Mary Alice, Nicole, moi. If we look ecstatic, it's because this was AFTER the panel when we headed downtown for some Caribbean fusion and adult beverages.

And speaking of South Carolina... Last night's Emrys Reading Room series featured authors Sue Lile Inman and Robert Inman [NO relation believe it or not] who read from their works, both poetry and prose, and answered questions from the audience. It was a very satisfying evening,by all accounts.

Bob, who lives in North Carolina, read from his work in progress, a novel called The Governor's Lady. The title elicited snickers of course, and he said he might revise part of it-- setting part of it in Argentina. Several of us in the audience were tempted to yell, "You lie!" but we have impeccable manners, we were raised right, and would never do anything so vulgar.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Being and God's Gardners

Can't wait to read Margaret Atwood's newest novel, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD-- what she calls "speculative fiction," aka literary science fiction. The story includes God's Gardeners "a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature, which has long predicted a disaster. " Atwood has always been smart about the promotional aspects of novel writing as well. [I hear she invented a kind of pen that allows authors to virtually autograph books.I kid you not.] She is on Twitter and has a stunning website for THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD.
There, you can nominate a "flood saint."

And now on to "Being" in the moment.For those of us who find writing a spiritual practice:

I love this quote from Virginia Woolf [thanks to Dani Shapiro's terrific blog about writing, which features this quote]:
Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.-- Virginia Woolf

Monday, September 14, 2009

Two Good Reads

Book report day. From the towering stack of TBRs on my bedside, two recommendations this week.

Last week I finished reading Alice Hoffman's The Story Sisters. I loved it. Hoffman, as usual, is such a fine storyteller, you'll lose sleep reading just one more page, one more page...

In honor of the late John Updike, I'm reading Rabbit at Rest. It's the last of the Rabbit books, the one I hadn't yet read. I'm reminded what an accomplished writer Updike was-- his prose is elegant, fresh, richly visual; the scenes unwind and flow with ease. Updike is one of those writers who takes his time describing his characters, even minor characters. Example: Rabbit's point of view, taking in his golf partner:
Joe Gold owns a couple of liquor stores in some city in Massachusetts called Framington. He is stocky and sandy and wears glasses so thick they make his eyes look like they're trying to escape from two little fishbowls, jumping from side to side.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Win Something! But Don't be a Deadhead[er]

This is the posting #200 on Novel Thoughts! Yeah! Let's celebrate.

Comment here or email me [but I prefer you comment so we can all, you know, share.] In one week--that's by next Tuesday, Sept. 15--I'll draw a name and mail you something a galley or a book or some seeds.

Meanwhile, you're not a dead header, right? don't go deadheading your coneflowers. Pleassssse don't. In fact, in the fall garden, you can sit back and enjoy the show-- the birds and butterflies. They'll feast on the seeds-- coneflower, butterfly bush, black-eyed susan, sunflowers, Joe-pye weed...leave 'em. Hands off, hubby. Clippers away, Pedro. It's feasting time for the critters. And a neat garden-- is a hungry, sad place this season. On the other hand, a big ol' seed-filled, rattling pods, undead-headed garden is so fun and generous and filled with critters. Goldfinches galore!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Flower Names for People

I think people with flower names are lucky. They get to be associated with fragrant, beautiful images: Daisy, Rose, Lily, Fern, Iris, Basil, Ivy, Violet.

But no Phlox? Or Sunflower?
No Bloodroot or monkshood or milkweed-- ok, I get that. But how about Magnolia, Cactus, Gardenia, Tulip?

One of the characters in my new work is named Azalea. I think that's a very fine name for a woman.

Here's an eerie aside. A plant name with sort of a morbid but intriguing history: Serviceberry, which blooms in spring, and used to indicate, with its white flowers-- like little surrendering flags-- when the winter was over and the ground thawed enough to bury the dead from the winter. So funeral services could commence.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Limerick break

Blocked? Need a writing prompt? Consider writing a limerick. Bawdy, satirical-- no matter where you stand on the issues. And we have so many "issues" ripe for rhyme.

The form: 5 line poem, with a "AABBA" rhyme scheme...which just means the first two lines and the last line rhyme, and then there's middle couplet.

Here's an example I just a South Carolina native-- a state with governor troubles right now. 'Nough said, right?

The governor headed for the Appalachian Trail
But detoured for some Argentinian tail
Said the people, "We're strugglin'
No thanks to your snugglin' "
and ran him out on a rail

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Master Class with Lauren Groff

Wikipedia defines a Master Class as "a class given to students of a particular discipline by an expert of that discipline—usually music, but also painting, drama, or any of the arts." In other words, a kick-ass successful bestselling literary writer--teaching and inspiring.

This fall, the Writing Room is offering our first Master Class with an admirable expert-- Lauren Groff , who will lead "After the First Draft,"a hybrid craft seminar and business talk. More about Lauren here and below.

If you're in the area on October 25--and if you're not, think about coming on down or up for a weekend in our fair city AND attend this class--consider being a part of what will be a riveting and inpsiring afternoon. Registration and more info at the Writing Room page on the Emrys foundation website.

Master Class with Lauren Groff: After the First Draft

The Writing Room is thrilled to have New York Times best selling novelist and prize-winning short story writer Lauren Groff lead this three-hour seminar on writing and publishing. Registration for this Oct. 25 seminar closes on October 19. Lauren will be reading from her work at the Emrys Reading Room on Monday, Oct. 26.

Most people breathe a great sigh of relief when they've finished a manuscript--as well they should. In a few days or weeks, however, they may feel at a bit of a loss, and wonder what to do now. This class will be a hybrid craft seminar and business talk, and will cover revision, query letters, agents, and a brief overview of the publishing process. Please bring pens, paper, and your questions.

Date: Sunday, Oct. 25

Time: 2:00 -5:00 pm

Instructor: Lauren Groff

Location: Innovate Building Conference Room,148 River St. Greenville

Cost: $50; $45 Emrys members

Levels: All levels, beginning to advanced

Note: Registration for this seminar closes on Oct. 19.

Lauren Groff 's first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, published in February 2008, was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. Her second book, Delicate Edible Birds, is a collection of stories. Both books are published by Hyperion/Voice. Lauren’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Points and Five Chapters, and in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. Lauren graduated from Amherst College and has an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Butterfly favorite "weed" of the day. A little on the garish side color-wise, but otherwise unassuming...and rich in nectar.

I have a guest post today, Book Signings that Rock, over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Drop on by!

And tonight-- a Writing Room workshop kicks off at Earth Fare: $5 bucks, two hours of writing. Details here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reading Series: What Makes a Good One?

Author readings: They're happening in bookstores, bars, libraries, and now, private homes [see Poets & Writers article: "thanks to a growing trend in grassroots marketing and publicity, writers in the San Francisco Bay area are reading to packed houses—literally.]

I've been inspired through the years by attending some fascinating readings from authors, and bored by a few readings, as well-- mostly because authors read too long. [I aspire to inspire, but I'm sure I've launched a few yawns in my own readings.]

Now that I'm heading up the Emrys "Reading Room" committee--organizing a local reading series-- I've been pondering how we can punch up the event. We've decided to add a Q&A session after every reading, to encourage conversation about the process of writing. The audience is often eager to learn more about how poets and writers move from idea to printed page. We'll also encourage authors to limit their readings to about 20 minutes, since there are two readers at each event.

Elementary, you say? Well, we've got some other tricks up our sleeves [sorry, but no free wine or beer-- THAT would be a punchy reading series.] We'd like to tape a few minutes of each reading to post online, for example. And encourage the audience to mingle and linger after buy books, of course, but also to bond.

Anybody have any dreamy or nightmarish tales of author readings--anywhere, anytime? Do tell-- comment or email me. I'd love to know!
Meanwhile, if you're in Upstate SC, don't miss the Emrys Reading Room series, as it kicks off tonight with Brian Ray and Joni Tevis, Monday, Aug. 24, 7 pm at the Handlebar, 304 East Stone Avenue, Greenville, SC 29601. Here's more about the featured authors:

Brian Ray grew up in Georgia and then moved to South Carolina, where he spent summers at a steel plant and went to college at the University of South Carolina. He finished an MFA there in 2007, after three years of plugging away at a novel based on life at the mill and some of the wildest things about Columbia and the Palmetto State. Through the Pale Door (Hub City 2009) won the SC First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for the debut novel. His work has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Big Muddy, New South, Timbercreek Review, and other journals.

Joni Tevis is from Easley, South Carolina, and earned her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Her work has been published in Isotope, Shenandoah, Conjunctions, Pleiades, The Bellingham Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Plenty, and elsewhere. The Wet Collection, her book of lyric essays, was published in August 2007 by Milkweed Editions. In this collection, the narrator navigates the peril and excitement of an outward journey complicated by an inward longing for home. Tevis especially likes to explore relationships – how one element in an environment interacts with other elements. At present, she teaches in the English department at Furman University.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Helping Women, Changing the Planet

The Sunday New York Times Magazine today stopped me in my tracks. Actually, I started getting an inkling of the enormous impact of today's series earlier in the week from the Tweets and Facebook entries and blog entries I came across-- a good kind of excited chatter. The theme of the issue is "Saving the World's Women," and the feature article by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, "Why Women's Rights are the Cause of Our Time," is stunning.

You may well know the tragic statistics that make you flinch-- about rape rooms, sex slaves, repression, genital mutilation--as the article points out, " In the 19TH century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape." But what distinguishes this series is the crack of light-- the hope we're seeing to change the world for the better through women, as the article points out:
There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren't the problem; they’re the solution.
The stories and photos of women overcoming brutality and violence to raise their children, to urge their daughters to be educated in the most hostile environments, are amazing. And then there are the ways to help-- The Power of the Purse by Lisa Belkin is an empowering article about how much impact women in the U.S. and beyond are having since "women give differently than men. They are less likely to want their names on things and more likely to give as part of drives (large ones, like Women Moving Millions, and smaller ones, like living-room 'giving circles') that include other women." While men tend to describe their giving as "practical," women "tend to describe theirs as emotional, an obligation to help those with less." Clearly, it comes down to the what this series of articles points to: how changing the lives of women and girls in the developing world can change everything:
Behind all this giving lies the theory that helping women and children is the way to change the planet. “Seventy percent of people living in poverty around the world are women and children,” says Christine Grumm, president and C.E.O. of the Women’s Funding Network. “If women have a roof over their heads and a home free of violence, and good and affordable health care, then so do children. In the larger picture, it’s not just about women, but entire communities. Women are the conduits through which change is made.
In case you have your own story of reaching out--in a field hospital, orphanage, or right here in your living room, through a giving circle like Dining for Women, The NYT is looking for your story, and requesting you submit your "personal stories that show the work being done in this field around the world, and the possibilities of change." Here's the link.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Keep the Weeds, Write Your Life

Some of the most beautiful plants around are weeds. I've got some wonderful weeds in my garden right now.
[That's plural. WeedS. NOT going there...]

Native plants--they usually don't even get a fancy name--they're some kind of weed. I've mentioned my admiration for Ironweed in a previous post, but I happen to be smitten right now with Joe-pye Weed, butterfly weed, and milkweed...all rich in nectar for butterflies, bees & hummingbirds. In fact, the Mexico-bound monarchs have started fluttering by this week, all over Joe-pye...which is towering high & mighty in my front yard, as you can see here.

So what does this have to do with writing? It's about cherishing the weeds maybe--the events or people in your life you'd rather pull up, ignore or throw out. The painful can be comic, you know. That old saw--right what you know or love? I had a writing teacher who said--forget that, write about something you hate, something that frustrates you, drives you nuts. For most of us in grad school, that meant writing about our jobs. I was waiting tables, and I never dreamed all that aggravation, stiffed tables, and frantic, exhausting work could provide such fodder for humor, but did. In the weeds-- that's restraunt talk for waaaay behind on your tables-- was where Cutter, a character from THE GARDEN ANGEL, often found herself.

Which leads me to...a class we're offering at the Writing Room on Sept. 29. It's called "Write Your Life: Memoir and Personal Essay," and it's all about capturing events from your life to use in your writing. Details here for regional folks who are interested:
  • Write Your Life: Memoir and Personal Essay

This two-hour workshop will help you plunge into the personal themes that make your real life stories uniquely yours. We’ll discover how to determine which events from your life can combine to create a memoir that resonates. We’ll discuss how to use some of these events to begin the process of getting your life on the page. We’ll cover craft elements, including voice and structure, and look at some of the ways in which elements of fiction and poetry can enliven your writing.

Date: Tuesday, Sept. 29

Time: 6:30 – 8:30 pm

Instructor: Heather Magruder

Cost: $25; Emrys members $20

Location: Metropolitan Arts Council, 16 Augusta Street, Greenville

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Time for the Writing Room

Autumn Clematis on our front-stair railing is honeyed, in full bloom-- just ask any bee. They have converged. Major bee convention here, all stripes. Bumble and honey. This is a resiliant vine, a [social] climber, and doesn't always mind its manners. It can be aggressive...or let's just say this is one heckuva ambitious vine. It would just love to scale great heights...and cover the roof. But it sure is comely in the fall...and makes up for its pushiness with mounds of sweetness.

Autumn Clematis blooms mid-August, about the time I send out a full schedule new classes from The Writing Room. The Writing Room is a community-based writing program, sponsored by the Emrys Foundation. We're in our third year and sixth season of offering classes to writers of all levels, at various Greenville, SC locations. And if you're not in the area-- well, I hope to offer an online virtual class or two next we can form a virtual community of global writers!

I thought I'd take a little chunk of the schedule and elaborate on it for the next several blogs. [Amid all the flora and fauna pictures, of course.] I'll talk about why people might be interested in taking a class...what kind of things we'll cover. So here's a basic rundown of the Fall 2009 schedule, which you can read--and register for-- on the Writing Room page of the Emrys website:
  • Monthly $5 workshops at Earth Fare
  • A Master Class on Writing & Publishing from best selling novelist Lauren Groff.
  • Write Your Novel in 12 Weeks: A new novel writing course to help you complete your first draft.
  • Write Your Life: A workshop on capturing your life story.
  • The Craft of Writing: A dozen new two-hour writing classes addressing everything from dialogue, to first drafts, to plot.
Regarding the monthly workshops: This is the first time we've begun offering monthly $5 writing workshops. We have tried to offer at least one free workshop each season, and they are well attended...way, way well attended, and lots of fun, besides. So, I thought we'd offer a workshop every month to keep up the momentum ...we're calling them "Out of Your Head and Onto the Pages." The nominal fee--you can't even get a venti Cappucino for 5 bucks anymore-- covers handouts and the small fee charged by Earth Fare for the use of their Community Room. These workshops are designed not so much for feedback on writing outside of class, but to stimulate creativity and prompt new writing. Here's more info:

Monthly Workshops: Out of Your Head and Onto the Pages
The Writing Room will kick off our monthly workshop series on Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at Earth Fare in Greenville. Open to writers of all levels, the fee for each two-hour workshop is $5, payable at the door. These writing workshops are designed to stimulate creativity and generate ideas for fiction and nonfiction. We'll use a series of short in-class writing exercises to inspire new work and deepen your writing. Come prepared to write in class, to share your exercises without fear or self-judgment, and above all, have some fun. Open to writers of all levels, the workshops are led by Mindy Friddle, Heather Magruder and other Writing Room faculty.

Location: Earth Fare Community Room, 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville
Cost: $5. Please pay at the door, cash or check. Space is limited, so please register by emailing or sign up at Earth Fare.
When: Tuesdays: August 25, September 22, October 27, November 10, December 8.
Time: 6:30- 8:30 PM
Levels: all levels, beginner to experienced.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stop & Smell the Buddleia

Butterflies, after they pupate, only live for about 24 hours. They flutter around in stunning beauty for a day, sucking up nectar.

The tiger swallowtail that posed for me in my front yard on the buddleia here reminds me how important it is to bring myself back into the present moment-- away from the noise and worries of the future, and the weight of the past. That kind of focus and flow happens on good writing days, when I lose all sense of time--clock time.

Sage advice from two blogs today, too good not to share:

From fellow writer Dani Shapiro, who blogs today on entering the internal world of writing: on good writing habits that foster creativity-- and avoiding the bad habits [like the maddening mind chatter from self-Googling.]

I loved Dani's novel Family History by the way...and I'm happy I stumbled upon her blog, and her quote from Virginia Woolf:
"Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger."
-- Virginia Woolf

And from Zen Thoughts, some concrete suggestions on how to live without "clock time," and with a quote I loved...this one from Faulkner:
“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” - William Faulkner

Friday, August 7, 2009

Leo, Leo, Leo!

August dawns muggy and buggy. Temperature in the triple digits...I hear that so often these days, I think it would be the name of a great drink. Bartender, I'll have a triple digit. Make that a double. Even my elephant ears, pictured here, in the shade garden sulk. Cheer up, guys!

Fortunately, I'm keeping cool in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The horses snort, their breath warm clouds, the Russian steppes are frigid, [Anna decidedly not!]the tundra glistening with frost, the ball rooms filled with dancers, the vodka flowing. I'm reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and if I had another kid, a son--which I'm definitely not, but I'm just saying-- I'd name him Leo. Leo as in Tolstoy, as in a genius, who captures the inner turmoil of relationships and troubled marriage and the heat of romantic love and longing like no one I've ever read before, dead or alive.

It's amazing to think Count Leo...he was a Count, too, that's so cool-- could, in the 1860's, when he wrote this classic, capture so sympathetically the intricacies of women's lives in the face of their limited, suffocating roles in society. Truly, he treats male and female characters equally. Also, there are the seeds of class warfare--the serfs grow restless. But then there are no true villains or heroes in Anna Karenina...everyone is so complex, conflicted, good and, you know, human.

What a tapestry of humanity. What a sprawling beautiful canvas. I'm on page 600 or so...200 more pages. I'm enthralled, absorbed, in awe, and plenty cool, thank you.

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