Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pacing myself

Typically, when I read at my Writers Critique Group, I've written about 20 or 30 pages ahead of the pages I share. The pages I present to the group are a little polished and I know the plot line of what's going to happen next.
This past Thursday was different. I've done very little new writing in the last couple of months and I admit to being unfocused and unable to come up with anything new, so when I read to the Group, I read up to and including the last pages I've written. The pages felt raw and unfinished; I felt lost in my own plot.
One of the group members asked me if a certain scene foreshadowed the story's conclusion. I have no idea, because I haven't written anything past that scene. I was asked why Sophie's character didn't have a better understanding of what was happening around her yet. Again, I don't know why, and I'm not sure I'll leave her in the dark quite as long as I have in this first draft. I just know that I need to write the whole book and then get a better idea of how to pace it once I've got it finished.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas books

I just picked up two Christmas picture books for my teen Sunday School class to read to the church's younger kids. One is called Joseph's Christmas Story and it rhymes its way through the familiar story, but from Joseph's point of view. I've heard the story of Jesus' birth told from every perspective imaginable, most often from Mary or the shepherds but also from the barn animals, the angels, and even the star over Bethlehem. This is the only story I've seen that tells Joseph's side of the story.
The other picture book is called The Tale of Three Trees, and it is the retelling of a traditional folktale. The three trees each have dreams, one to become a treasure chest, another to sail the seas, and the third to be the tallest tree in the world. In classic picture book fashion, their dreams come true but not in the way they originally thought. It's a fabulous tale, full of Christian symbolism and meaning and perfect for either Easter or Christmas reading.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Telling the story by its cover - or not

I was browsing the shelves at the library last week and picked up "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" by John Boyne. As usual, I turned it over to read the synopsis on back of the jacket. It was blank. I checked the inside flap for any information about the storyline and found this:

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence.

I was intrigued, and wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading the book. It wasn't until about page 20 that I really figured out what was going on, and by then I was completely hooked. I don't want be a spoiler in case you read it (or rent the movie, which I haven't seen). What an amazing storytelling John Boyne is, using a 'slow reveal' technique to gradual unveil his story. One of the most unique stories I've ever read. I recommend it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fantasy and historical fiction

Fantasy and historical fiction seem to be my two favorite genres to read, going all the way back to grammar school: A Wrinkle in Time, the Wizard of Oz books, and the Little House on the Prairie books (thanks for reminding me of those, Lisa) Then there was The Hobbit, The Diary of a Young Girl, and more others than I can count.
This past week, I read two YA historical fiction novels, Nefertiti by Michelle Moran (no relation) and Someone Named Eva by Joan Wolf. Both started with historically accurate time and place, painting word pictures of the culture and the daily life of its people. Actual events which took place during the timeline of the story were woven in and added to the challenges faced by the characters. I came away from both books with more knowledge of actual events and the curiosity to know even more.
That's what I'm trying to do with my book. I want a reader to feel more informed about pre-war Germany, and perhaps to see how millions of educated people fell for twisted truths. If we don't learn the lessons that history has to teach us, we risk making the same mistakes .

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eavesdropping and watching

Just because I titled this post "Eavesdropping and watching", don't think I spend time peering into windows or pressing my ear to doors. I just love people watching and part of that involves listening to them.
Walking through the aisles of Gerrity's yesterday, I kept bumping into a young woman with two girls, so I made a number of observations about them based on the way they moved and snippets of their conversation.The woman, the girls' mother I presume, walked quickly and spoke to the girls about the tasks on hand: pick some apples you'd like, oatmeal or cereal this week? etc. The older girl, about 13 I figure, showed the classic "I'm so embarrassed to be seen with these people" attitude by her clipped answers, her shuffling feet, and her downward gaze. When her mother's back was turned, she grabbed a box of chocolate granola bars and silently tucked it into the basket. The younger girl, probably about 10 years old, was chock full of energy and entertained herself (and me). Without prompting, she grabbed one of those premade flower bouquets. "Oh, thank you," she said to no one in particular. She curtsied. "I'm honored." Her mother rolled her eyes and smiled. Her sister moved away.
In the dairy aisle, I caught up to the younger girl choosing yogurt. She lifted one and said, "If this is Greek yogurt, how come I can read the label? I don't know Greek." and "Ooh, la la. Zis yogurt iz French." You get the idea. Her mother stood nearby, smiling and apparently enjoying this kid's antics. Her sister hid among the baked goods.
I guess what I'm saying is I watch people and listen to them because I learn a lot that way. Being a student of human behavior comes in handy when I'm trying to write realistic dialogue or show a character's traits and emotional state.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ways to tell a story

Well, the Young Authors Day is history now, and I had a ball. I was even interviewed for the Abington Journal and I'm interested to see how it's reported there ("Local woman with a few writing credits plays with kids and laughs a lot"). The kids engaged well in the activities I planned, moving and talking and writing down their ideas. Some of them even shared their budding story at the end by standing up and talking it through.
The teenagers in my Sunday School class tell stories too. Each month, they're assigned a Bible story and they're in charge of presenting the lesson behind the story during the Children's Sermon. Most months, their lesson is done as some kind of performance (they're a bunch of hams), usually a skit they've written. This month, they're making puppets and putting on a puppet show. Another way to tell a story.
This weekend, I watched the Pixar film Wall-E. Yes, I know I'm behind the times. I was impressed by how much the characters of Wall-E and Eva were developed with basically no dialogue. The gestures and body language spoke volumes about who they were and what they felt. Fascinating.
Three distinct activities, all with the same storytelling goal.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How about a title?

Since I'm about 2/3 or 3/4 done with my first draft, it's high time my book got a title. I know it's likely that whatever I choose will be overruled by an agent or editor, but hey, I gotta try. After all, even an agent or editor might be drawn in by the just-right title of a manuscript that lands on their desk.
Like everything else for kids, there are different trends for different age groups. Picture book titles are almost a story in themselves, like Don't let the pigeon drive the bus! or Diary of a worm. Middle grade books tend to have titles brimming with middle school sensibilities. Your mother was a Neanderthal or Gossip times three probably won't appeal to an adult, but those titles speak to the heart of a 10-year old. The target audience for my novel is young adult, ages 14 +, and with any luck and a lot of prayer, it'll go into the 'cross-over' world of also appealing to adults. Titles for YA books tend to be snappy and dramatic. Speak. Twilight. You get the idea.
My working title is The Focus. It defines both what Sophie wants to avoid, the attention of other people, and what she eventually uses to tell the truth of what's happening around her, her camera. What do you think?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's all about the characters and the setting

I'm getting my ideas together on what to do with these 3rd graders. (Am I putting more time and thought into this than it needs? Probably. Welcome to my life.) I want their 'take home' message to be this: characters and setting are the basic ingredients for the fiction stories they want to write.
So, what I'm thinking right now is to have them choose a card that has a character on it, like a little brother, a rock star, a carpenter, or a monster/creature they create. They have to define what that character looks like, how they behave, what they like to eat, and in general, create the character from the ground up. Second, they'll choose a card with a setting on it, like a Wild West town, a cave, an island, or the Space Shuttle. They'll have to draw a map of the setting or list physical attributes like buildings, mountains, electronic devices, and whatnot. Third, their 8 or 9 year old selves have to meet that character in that setting. How they each got there, how they interact, what they say to each other, and what they do together is an instant plot. What do you think?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reading like a writer

When I first started writing, I kept a file filled with oddball articles from the newspaper that might be fodder for a story: "929 gallons of moonshine found under Kentucky shed", that sort of thing. After I started writing my novel, I focused on 1938 Germany and stopped collecting ideas from other times or places.
As I prep for this Young Writers workshop in a couple of weeks, I'm revisiting the article collection idea. Writers of all ages need inspiration and real life gives it. Take this headline from the Scranton Times: "Fingerprint reveals daVinci piece". It seems a 19th century German artist was given credit for an unsigned portrait of a woman, and it had been in the hands of collectors and art dealers for years. The current owner asked a forensic expert to identify the fingerprint and palm print still visible on the painting and the match was made: Leonardo daVinci. That took the value of the piece from $19,000 to $150 million. I could make that up, but the fact that it's real makes it completely cool.
I bet the third graders will love stories like that. I'll bring my collection to share with them and encourage them to collect some too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who, me?

A couple days ago, I got a phone call asking me to take part in a Young Writers' Day for grades 3-12, hosted by Keystone College. I came recommended by an acquaintance who described me as 'flexible and good with kids.' Would I consider taking charge of a break-out session with an unknown number of third graders? My initial thought was, Who, me? What could I possibly tell 8 and 9 year olds about writing? It's not like I'm a real author or anything. But the caller was persistent, and eventually I agreed to read the workshop's agenda and consider the possibility.

So let's just assume I am the right person for this. What can I bring to a bunch of kids eager to write the next Captain Underpants? I guess I could share their feelings as they look at putting their ideas into words. Like them, I am intimidated and confident, exhausted and energized, completely overwhelmed and totally in the zone. Sometimes all in the same day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Am I the only person who can't learn from a Power Point presentation?

I went to a two-day workshop last week where probably 75% of the material was presented in Power Point. Little factoids flashed across the screen and vanished before they ever became knowledge for me to keep. Maybe it's my age. Maybe it's my learning style. Maybe it's my need to organize information into lists and categories. But somehow, all my brain retains from a Power Point are isolated bits of information, formless and detached from all the other bits. Give me an outline with Roman numerals and headings and sub-headings, and I can learn how all the information bits relate to one another. Then I'm likely to come to truly understand the material and be able to apply it.
Anyone else have the same problem?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's like parenting

In a way, this story of mine is like my child. I incubated it, letting it grow and take shape inside my head for a long time. Then I brought it out of my head and onto paper, giving birth to concrete ideas that I shared with other people, but not until the story and I were both ready. I continue to feed it with daily attention, discipline it by correcting mistakes, and teach it how to behave in public by sharing it with my writer's group. It needs my time and my energy, and in return the story takes on its own life and will (hopefully) be strong enough to live on its own in the future. Like parenthood, writing this book has been great fun, a pain in the neck, an inspiration, completely aggravating, and a challenging, amazing experience.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Writer's voice

It's said that a writer's voice reveals the whole person behind the words including his/her ideas, wit, rhythms, and passions. Books by Michael Crichton, for instance, show he was an intelligent man with insight and passion for science, both traditional and experimental. Compare his voice to that of Woody Allen (self-deprecating humor, outsider looking in) or Judy Blume (gentle humor, love of life) and it's easy to how the writer's voice comes through in his/her work.
So that leads me to an obvious question. What does my voice reveal about me? Ideas? I have too many with not enough time and focus to develop them all. Wit? I've got lots of that, especially for puns and the ridiculous situations I find myself in. Rhythms? I alternate between tense and relaxed, and I try to do too many things at once.
My passions? By far, the thing I'm most passionate about is decency and justice for people who are vulnerable. That's no doubt because of my early experiences with Joyce and my work for so many years with kids with disabilities and their families. That passion prompts me to write letters to the local newspaper editor, to legislators, and to network TV shows when I see people who have no voice as the targets of injustice. The recent state budget debacle here in Pennsylvania has pulled the rug out from under senior citizens, at-risk children, and the poor and hungry. I've been protesting and I will continue to protest. I've been praying for resolution to this injustice and I will continue to pray. Not surprisingly, my protagonist, Sophie, develops that same passion for human decency over the course of the book I'm writing.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My story's longer than I expected

When I first started writing this book, I figured it'd be about 200 pages. It's clear to me now that my first draft will be over 250 pages, typed and double-spaced. Maybe more. I was beginning to think that it was too long for the current market, since getting published is my goal and a fit into the market is a must if that's gonna happen.
Then I found this info on a blog I follow: The average number of pages in books for teens has been increasing steadily over the last few decades. Part of that is because of the increased popularity of fantasy, which tends to run longer than average. (Maybe that's why I love fantasy. It tends to wander.) But other genres have increased in length as well. Here's the stats I found.
Average length in 1979: 151 pages,
1989: 157 pages,
1999: 233 pages,
2009: 337 pages.
So maybe I'm right on target after all. I guess I'll just keep writing until the story's told and not stress about the length.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I didn't reach my goal, but that's okay

I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this summer. That didn't happen. It was a lofty goal and I knew that going in. Instead of chaining myself to my computer, I found a balance between writing and enjoying a wonderful summer. I have no regrets.
I've written a hundred pages since early June, so I certainly got a lot of good writing time in. And I like the pages I've written! The voice is clear and the characters are fleshing out well. The plot line continues to reveal itself and the process of watching it unfold and documenting its progress is fascinating.
Folks who are interested sometimes ask when it will be done, how long it will be, etc. The honest answer to both questions is "I don't know." I can see the conclusion of the story on the horizon, and I figure it will be about 250 typewritten pages when it's done. But if I've learned anything on this journey, it's that I'm not good at predicting these things. It'll be done when it's done. It'll be as long as it needs to be to finish the story line to a satisfying conclusion.
In the meantime, I'll keep writing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

BBC's book list

My niece Sarah had this posted under her "Notes" on Facebook. I couldn't figure out how to put anything under Notes on my Facebook page, (not tech-saavy today I guess) so I'm pasting it here. I've placed an X next to ones I've read.
Go ahead and check your own reading against this list. The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here.
I have more reading to do!

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen -X
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien -X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte -X
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling - X
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee -X
6 The Bible -X
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - X
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell - X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman -X
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - X
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott - X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy –
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller –X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare -
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier -
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien - X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk -
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - X
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger-
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot -
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell -X
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens -
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy -
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams -
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky -
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll- X
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame- X
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy -
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens -X
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis - X
34 Emma-Jane Austen -
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen -
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis - X
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - does 1/2 way count?
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres -
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden -
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne - X
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell - X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown -X
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez -
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving-
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins -
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery-X
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy -
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood -
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding -x
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan-x
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel -
52 Dune - Frank Herbert -
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons-
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen -
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth -
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon -
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens -x
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley -x
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon- x
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez -
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck -X
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov-
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold -
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas-
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac -
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy -
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding-
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie –
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville -X
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens- x
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker -
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett - X
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson -
75 Ulysses - James Joyce -
76 The Inferno – Dante-X
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome -
78 Germinal - Emile Zola -
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray-
80 Possession - AS Byatt –
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens - X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell -
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker-
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro--
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert -
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry -
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White - X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom -x
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- x
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton-
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad -
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery - x
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks -
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams-
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole -
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas -
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare-X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl - X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo-

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's been a long time

I see it's been weeks since I posted on my blog. Guess that means I've been busy, busy working, true, but mostly busy enjoying summer. I love being outdoors in warm weather, picking blueberries, relaxing in the pool with friends, or just curling up with a cup of coffee while I read on the porch. Everything feels better outdoors in warm weather.
Summer brings its own outdoor culture, and I've enjoyed some of that. We went to an Orioles game with Katie and Kyle, saw Paul McCartney (heart be still) with Kathy, saw Elton and Billy with Katie (Elton is good but Billy is awesome, even when he's sick) , and saw Mike's new apartment and workplace in Sanford Florida. In there somewhere, I took a bus trip to Washington with my church to watch our pastor's graduation, and we hosted a couple of parties. We have two more parties to go to round out the summer.
Yep, it's been wonderful, despite the rainy weather and the cooler-than-average temps. I've even taken some time to sit and think about my story, a rare commodity to be sure. Some days, I write like a woman possessed, and other days I barely come up with a new phrase. I'm on about page 170 now, and I figure it'll be somewhere around 270 when I'm done with this first draft. I had hoped to be done with the first draft by the end of August which now doesn't seem realistic, but hey, you never know. It's summer. Anything can happen.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Being a rebel

The History channel ran a show last weekend about the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The show described what they were up against: breaking ties with their mother country, saying they wanted to govern themselves (and do it in a way no one had done before), and doing it all in full knowledge that they would be guilty of treason against the king if they were caught, punishable by hanging. Somewhere, somehow, they got the courage to sign their names and send it off to King George. It was a gamble, and we reap the benefits.
Personally, I love the idea that I live in a country founded by rebels against the status quo.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cut and paste vs. delete

I've been writing 15-20+ hours each week for the last couple of weeks, most of which is new material. It's more than I usually write, and even as I'm writing it, I know that some of it is crap. In the last week, I've killed off a character then decided he couldn't die, given another one polio then decided she couldn't have it, and decided that an invisible character needs to remain invisible, like Carlton the doorman from Rhoda. Sometimes I cut and paste the scene into a "deleted scenes" file on my computer. Sometimes I just highlight the whole thing and delete it. Gone forever.
I'm just plugging away, getting my ideas and revisions down on paper (or my more accurately, on my computer) while I have the time.
I just printed out 30 pages of new text and now I'll edit. I actually love this part, because this is where my story stops being crap and starts evolving into the story it wants to be. I'll need to revise it, change the sequence of events, improve the dialogue, describe the setting better, etc.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Trusting for the rest

Writing this book has been quite a creative stretch for me.
My background in PT is heavy in sciences and child development, so I am used to information organized and presented sequentially and logically. When I've written non-fiction materials for the PT or child development literature, I've created a plan in the form of an outline and written my manuscript according to the plan.
So, I tried to write fiction that way. The result was too formal and contrived. I got frustrated with it and gave up.
In reading a 'how to' book on writing fiction, I found some help. One author compared writing fiction to driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights will allow, usually only until the next turn. But that's okay. It's far enough, and you just have to learn to trust for the rest. I decided to give that a try.
So, I created characters and put them in a time and place. Then I gave one a problem and let the characters go. Sometimes I feel like a spectator recording the action, and I haven't got a fully developed plan as to what will happen next or whether it will end how I originally hoped.
I still struggle with a feeling of being out of control of my story. Hopefully, I can continue to trust what I see, one little stretch of road at a time.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Learning from history

One of the members of my writer's critique group, Mary Slaby, has published a terrific historical fiction novel and is currently working on the sequel. She was lucky enough to be interviewed by a historical fiction blogger, who also reviewed her book, positively, as I knew it would be. Check it out:
Someday, that'll be me.
I went to bed last night with my story swirling through my head. I woke this morning with a focus on what I need to write today. Time to get off the blog and onto the book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Time off, time to write!

One of the perks of my job is time off, like snow days and holidays, plus some longer breaks scattered throughout the year. The Early Intervention program I work with is on a break for the month of June, so I am officially off for four weeks! (applause!) I am free to spend hours puttering in my gardens, having tea on the porch, floating in the pool, all that great summertime stuff. But I also know I want to work on my book. I plan to discipline myself and write at least a couple of hours each day, plus catch up on all the research material I've accumulated in the last year.
It's hard to remember what I've written and create a cohesive story when I usually only write a couple of times a week. In anticipation of this long stretch of writing days, I re-read the 140 pages I've already written, and guess what? I like it!
Time for me to dig in and create. I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Writing your own lines

I teach the high school Sunday School class at my church. Our class' assignment for May was to read the entire book of Esther, and in about one hour of class time, prepare a 10 minute drama to tell the story of Esther to the whole congregation. Just a little overwhelming.
In the interest of time, I assigned each student a character from the story. I asked them to develop their own lines without seeing the other characters' lines. The result was quirky and imperfect, but each character's individual voice came through clearly. They used words and actions in ways that revealed personality. They stuck to the basic ideas of the Old Testament story, but infused it with their contemporary references and perspectives.
I don't think any of the students consider themselves writers, but they proved otherwise. The drama they wrote was filled with original voices which revealed character, advanced the plot, and managed the conflict. We should all do so well with our stories.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Musings on sitting and thinking

I came across a poem called The Secret written by Robert Frost in 1941.
"We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle, and knows."
I am awed by the brevity he used to describe a universal truth about human behavior. Then I found a quote by a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher (now there's a combination) named Blaise Pascal. "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone."
The quote and the poem are saying the same thing to me. I need to spend time sitting quietly, thinking and being. That peaceful state of mind, the secret so to speak, will keep me from dancing round in a ring and from my own miseries.
I can easily apply this idea to my writing. I find my most productive, creative times are when I am relaxed and thinking about my story without pressure. I need to quietly remove myself from it in order to really see it for what it is, and help it become what it is trying to become. 140 pages done, and counting.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Film Festival, part 2

I went to see Defiance at the Dietrich's Film Festival last weekend. The story was based on true events that happened in Belorussia during WWII, where occupying Nazi forces stormed into towns and villages and killed Jewish residents by the hundreds. Many people fled into the surrounding forest, where they met others who were also fleeing.
Eventually, two brothers acted as leaders of this company of Jewish refugees. These men were not perfect leaders, not by a long shot, and they had their share of internal and external trials. They were constantly being hunted by Nazis, local Nazi sympathizers, and wild animals. They were cold, sick, short on food, and often out of hope. But, they kept the people in the forest until the end of the war, over two years, two years! building shelters, schools, and even a hospital of sorts. In all, 1200 people survived in this amazing group thanks to the efforts of these brothers.
The film's epilogue says that the brothers did not want their story told while they were alive and did not want credit for what they had done. Their wishes were respected, and now their children and grandchildren are telling the story.
It makes me wonder how many more stories like that are out there, stories of ordinary people behaving with honor in extraordinarily awful times. The story I'm writing is fiction. More amazing by far are true stories are about real people.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Film Festival

The Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock is in the middle of its spring Film Festival. On Sunday, I saw Everlasting Moments, a Swedish film set in the early 1900s about a woman who enjoys taking photos. The main character in the movie was in a horrific marriage, and I kept thinking, "She should get out of there. She should use her photography skills to support herself, or at least to document what has happened to herself and her kids." But she never did, and the story didn't grab me as much as it might have, if only...
Then I had to laugh. From my seat in the audience, I was trying to rewrite the plot. I was figuring out how to make the story into what I wanted it to be.
I already have a story that's historical fiction and includes a female main character who loves photography. I don't have to sit through someone else's story line. I can make it what I want it to be. I want Sophie to be a heroine who uses whatever skills she has to address the world around her. And I can do that from my seat at my computer.
This Sunday is Defiance, based on a true story, so I guess I can't try to rewrite the plotline.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Getting help with my details

A couple of months ago, I bought a late 1930's Balda 61 German camera on ebay and I hope to use it as the model for the camera Sophie uses in my book. It's in great shape considering its age, but the bellows are a bit brittle and I'm unsure of some of the mechanisms. The camera didn't come with an instruction book and I haven't been able to find one online.
I am at the place in my story where Sophie uses the camera a bit more often, and I want to understand the details of its use so I can describe it to a reader. I need some expert help, some knowledgeable person willing to share info about the workings of a 70-year old foreign camera. My local yellow pages was not helpful in locating an expert, but a quick Google search for 'camera clubs' and 'Scranton' brought me to the Northeast Photography Club. An email to the club's president brought me a quick response and a name and email address for the camera enthusiast/expert I've been looking for. I plan to pick his brain, but not until next week, after Easter.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Filling in the gaps

I have a tendency to write a scene or two and then not write anything for days. The rest of my life interferes, you know? Then, when I get another block of time to write, I assume I'll pick up where I left off, so I reread 8 or 10 pages to get back into the flow. More often than not, I find gaps in the story that I need to fill in.
Sometimes it's minor stuff, places where someone starts to speak but I never told the reader they entered the room, that sort of thing. Other times, it's bigger stuff, like instant character development that should have taken 100 pages worth of trials and tribulations.
I guess that's why this writing process is taking me so long. I need the distance between write and rewrite to even see the gaps.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Being brave

This week at my writing critique group, it will be my turn to read. I'll bring copies for everyone in the group and they'll read silently while I read about 10 pages of my manuscript aloud. A few minutes are given for the critiquers to compose their thoughts. Then, in a sort of roundtable discussion, they offer constructive criticism on everything from punctuation to character development, from awkward phrases to slips in point of view.
My critique group is kind in delivering their ideas and criticisms to me, so it (usually) doesn't feel like a massacre by hungry wolves. But even gentle criticism can be hard to take, and I am learning to be brave. I try to listen to criticisms and think about them, let them roll around in my mind for a while and see whether or not they have merit. I don't make every change someone suggests; that would be writing a book by committee and that is not my intent. But my fellow readers and writers have shared with me wonderful ways to strengthen my work by pointing out inconsistencies and awkwardness that I was too close to see. I have learned to trust the path of struggling through critiques as much as I trust my own path of struggling through writing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What's it about?

This weekend, we visited some friends who knew nothing about my efforts to write a book. When I talked about it, they asked what everyone asks: "What's it about?" This time when I answered the question, I actually knew. I was able to tell them, and if I say so myself, it sounded pretty interesting. How cool is that?
It's taking me a long time to get the story out of my head and onto paper, and much of what I've written had to be tossed aside. (I have a entire folder in My Documents called Orphans and Early Versions). I've spent hours writing some threads of the story and then spent less than a minute deciding to cut that thread. But I must be doing something right since I now can articulate what my story is about.
The direction in which I'm taking the story is more focused. Through writing and rewriting, through outlines, index cards, and sticky notes, I have been able to tease the story away from the fluff. It's taking shape, and I'm learning so much in the process.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When will my research end?

The farther (further?) I get into writing this book, the more questions I have. At this point, I'm wondering why on earth I chose historical fiction. It would be so much simpler if I could just make up everything instead of having some of it grounded in facts about the era and the setting.
Right now, I'm writing a segment in which Sophie is in the polio rehab ward, and the research I've done about polio rehab of that era has paid off. But now I find I need to research the culture of their medical practice, like was their medicine socialized, were there insurances with caps, etc. Those details will impact how long Sophie can stay in rehab and what kind of services poorer members of the society would have access to. If the story is going to be authentic, I have to get that right.
I think I could research that era and the details of the story for the rest of my life and never finish writing the book. In order to finish, I have to know when to say when. I guess it's not yet.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Spring, finally

As I write this, the snow is mostly melted, the sun is shining, and it's 50 degrees at 10 am. Spring, finally.
Don't get me wrong. It's not like full-blown spring with budding leaves and daffodils. Not yet. But somehow, I can see the subtle changes that tell me my favorite season is not far away. A few patches of yellow-green are struggling amidst the brown grass. Roadside brambles have taken on a pale pastel hue, not quite green, but no longer the color of toast. It's time to push aside the layer of dead leaves and uncover the new life ready to grow. Time for new ideas and a fresh outlook.
In preparation for reading for my critique group next week, I am uncovering 10 pages that I wrote a month or two ago. I need to look at it anew and brush off the dead layer off. Hopefully, that will allow it to grow into the story it is supposed to be.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Living history, I guess

I had one of those "Omigosh" moments this morning. A girl in my Sunday school class, about 13 years old, told me her homework for Music class included writing a historical look at the Beatles. Who knew I'd live to see the day that the music which has been the soundtrack to my life would be the subject of a history lesson?
Some of the Beatles' music has clearly not stood the test of time. It was pop music, good for a little while, but only revisited when a radio station plays top hits from a single year. On the other hand, some of their music has morphed into classic status, destined to be sung and recorded by another generation of musicians and vocalists.
Any artist (including a writer like me) could only hope for such a legacy. I pray that thirty plus years after I finish my book, someone picks it up and finds it to be a timeless classic with a unique voice.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The shortest month of the year is the longest for me

PA winters are too long for my taste. If I had a choice, winter would end on January 2nd, all the daffodils would come up and I'd walk my dogs without the coat, gloves and scarf. To combat that stuck-in-the-house feeling I get by February, I visited my best friend Joni and her hubby and son in San Antonio for a few days this week. My visit to them was long overdue and absolutely wonderful. There is nothing better than basking in the warmth of an old friendship to refresh me, inside and out. It's better than spring.
In hopes of breaking up the winter doldrums for some friends here in PA, Michael and I are hosting an Oktoberfest tomorrow night. We'll be serving up some wurst, sauerbraten, weiner schnitzel, potato pancakes, dumplings, spaetzle, red cabbage and lots of other recipes from my German cookbooks and my mother. I've got German music, Hogan's Heroes episodes and I even made up a couple of games. Here's hoping we have a good time. Prosit!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Writing and rewriting

A lot of the writers in my critique group find it easier to write new material than to self-edit: slashing out pet phrases, paragraphs or whole pages. Not me. I think I prefer self-editing and the whole rewriting process. It's as if my first attempt is a blurry picture and I need multiple edits to bring the characters and story into focus.
I can edit my work and re-write anytime, even if I have 15 minutes available. By contrast, to write a new scene, I need the right conditions: at least an hour, minimal distractions, a clear head and no fatigue. Focused time like that is a rare commodity for me.
I have a whole file of 'early versions' of my novel saved on my computer, versions that involved a different protagonist, scenes that I decided not to use, or plot lines that were dead ends.
I don't know why I'm saving them. Maybe they'll come in handy sometime in some other novel. Or maybe they are all just part of my learning curve.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Write what you know?

When I first started writing, one of the first rules I heard was "Write what you know." Well, I know about PT with kids, so did this rule mean I was supposed to write about PT with kids? That struck me as kind of boring. I was already doing it all day. Did I really want to write about it all night? My answer was 'no.'
The more I thought about it, I saw it as a challenge. Couldn't I take some of what I've learned and turn it into stories? I don't mean PT stuff like hamstring stretches or wheelchair prescriptions. I mean real lessons, like the dignity of the individual, how alike we all are underneath our bodies, how the disability of one person affects their family, and how different community members react to that person and their family. I was intrigued. And I started writing.
In the fiction novel I am writing, Sophie, the protagonist, develops polio. She goes from being an insider to being an outsider in her own society, an experience common for people with an acquired disability. She learns that her true value as a human being is not tied to her body. That's what the kids I work with have been teaching me for 30+ years.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Research finds on ebay!

Since I'm writing historical fiction, I have to research the period and setting for my novel. I started by researching the traditional way: through books. I purchased about two dozen books and borrowed another couple dozen from the library. Then I jacked up my excitement for the project by traveling to Munich for a few days in October to research the setting in person. Since then, I found another (cheaper) way to research from home: ebay!
I bid on and won a Sears-Roebuck catalog from 1938. It gave me pictures of items that were in use at the time like dresses with puffy sleeves, console radios, and wringer washers. Great stuff. Just today, I won a German 1938 camera. Why a camera, you ask? Because I want to describe the camera Sophie uses, and having it in front of me is the best way I know to create an authentic description.
95 pages and counting.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Feedback from my instructor

I am pumped!
I got feedback from my ICL instructor, Nancy Butts, on the first third of my novel. Here's an excerpt.
"I got to page 4 and I wanted to stop and tell you right away that you had struck gold. I know it's been a long difficult frustrating process for you to get to this point but the addition of Esther and all the details about Sophie's secret friendship with her are perfect. To me it seemed as if you had found the heart of your book... from this moment on, I started to gulp down the book the way a young reader would. I didn't want to slow down long enough to be your teacher...I just wanted to read. And that is the single best compliment anyone can ever pay to a writer...I can already envision it on the shelves of a bookstore somewhere."

Friday, January 16, 2009


I don't like being cold. When I took my dogs out this morning, the thermometer read 9 below. It made me think that bears have the right idea: just curl up and sleep until it's all over.
And yet, there is a certain beauty in that incredible cold. Tough tiny goldfinches flit around my thistle feeder. Frozen imprints of last night's deer outing create a path through my snow-covered yard. Each branch of each tree is outlined in white as if by an artist's paintbrush. It is truly magnificent. Especially when viewed from my couch, curled under a blanket while reading a book and sipping coffee. That's my version of hibernation.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Myth and truth

Mythology was required reading in high school and I loved it. Each culture uses their myths to describe universal truths about people and their relationships with each other and their world. The stories deal with greed, love, jealousy, pride, selflessness and other themes that seem unchanged throughout human existence. Each holds a kernel of truth that transmits down through the ages, regardless of how old the story is.

Joseph Campbell did an amazing job describing the basic structure of myths and in pointing out commonalities between ancient myths and well-told modern stories. He says the modern storyteller is honoring the ancient mythic tradition if he/she knows the kernel of truth or the moral they want to impart. But today's storyteller can't overtly state the moral in one sentence and still get the work published. The moral needs to be woven through the story so it becomes part of the fabric, so to speak, and not something that hits the reader over the head. I have so much to learn.

I sent out the first one-third of my book to my ICL instructor, Nancy Butts. Now I'm onto the 'big swampy middle' third of the book. Wish me luck.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Nazis are big in the movies this winter

We saw Valkyrie the other day, a movie based on real events in WWII where some German officers conspire and attempt to assassinate Hitler. Tom Cruise was a one-eyed, one-armed Nazi officer. Go figure. We saw the trailer for Defiance which is also based on a true story from WWII. In that one, blond haired blue eyed Daniel Craig plays a Jewish man. Yeah, right. It sounds like a fascinating story even if the casting seems odd to me. Then there's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, which I believe are both fiction.
I guess I'm not the only one who is fascinated by the lessons to be learned from that place and time. Sixty plus years after the end of that war, new stories of heroism, conflict and personal sacrifice continue to surface.
That means there will be room for Sophie's story too.