Ties that Bind: How friends challenged me to write a (better) novel

knot on fingerBless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year. 

That was in 2008.

Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”

Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!

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The founder of Lone Mountain Writers, Marilee Swirzcek

I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.

Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.

Here’s what I heard instead:

  • Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
  • “What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
  • “Where is the conflict, the drama?
  • “Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?

Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.

Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.

They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on a long ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.

What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.

In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.

So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.

Now, where’s my sunscreen?

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Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.

The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.

“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”

Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.

Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.

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Author, Ann Patchett

“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”

I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!

Book review: A book for what ails you

paris-bookshopThe Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George

Are you in need of enchantment? A long vacation? Good food? Wine? A little romance or the chance of finding it again? Are you in need of a remedy for a small sadness?

Kindly come in. Watch your step.

Jean Perdu, the middle-aged proprietor of The Literary Apothecary has just the thing. His shop is actually a barge on the bank of the Seine and his books are organized by emotion and the needs of the readers. “Perdu reflected that it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They looked after people.”

 “I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor or intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end. Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that.”

On the power of reading good books:

“…reading makes people impudent, and tomorrow’s world is going to need some people who aren’t shy to speak their minds…”

“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book…he saw freedom on wings of paper.”

But the love of books and the bank of the Seine are just the beginning of this story. When Perdu finds a poignant, twenty-year-old love letter in an old kitchen table, he impulsively unmoors his bookshop and sets off on a quest. As he’s leaving, Max Jordan, a young, reclusive author, jumps aboard.  Yes, it’s a road trip, but the “road” ends up being the system of rivers and canals in France. Along the way, they take on another older man, Salvatore Cuneo, who has been searching for his lost love for decades. So, it is love—or the possibility of love—that sends all three men on this quest. There is a literary mystery to be solved as well.

“We cannot compel anyone to love us. There’s no secret recipe, only love itself. And we are at its mercy—there’s nothing we can do.”

What better place to pursue a quest than the water- and roadways between Paris and Toulon? Author, Nina George’s lyrical and sensuous descriptions will draw you into every village and scene, every meal and glass of wine, every sunset and every tango.  Deep sadness and great love are expressed throughout the book with warmth and compassion. Themes of love and loss, healing and hope permeate this luscious read.

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Author, Nina George

“All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layer of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. Directly below the surface, we are our former selves: the former child, the former lover, the former daughter.”

I found this book to be perfectly charming. It reinforces the healing power of books and time, while also reminding us not to shut ourselves away, but to live in the world, to really experience it. It also made me want to book a river cruise in France. Or at least drink in the sunset and some good wine with someone I love. Recommend.

Some lighter reading, now and then…

My Best Friend's Girl by [Koomson, Dorothy]        Landline: A Novel by [Rowell, Rainbow]

 

Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff.  And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.

In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.

To her ex, Kamryn says:

“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”

And about Tegan:

“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”

In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.

“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”

“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”

These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.

Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

What’s next?

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After You by JoJo Moyes

My book club chose to read this after finishing the author’s very moving and successful Me Before You. We simply needed to know if Lou Clark ever got a happy ending. The answer is well, sort of.

The book picks up a year or so after Will’s death. Publicity surrounding his controversial decision impacts everyone connected–even Lou’s family.  Lou moves to Paris for a while, but is still struggling to find a way forward. She returns to England and, with money Will has left her, buys a little flat in London and works unhappily in an airport bar. The flat is just a place to sleep. She hasn’t even properly moved in until an unexpected and troubled young girl claiming ties to Will shows up. Out of loyalty to Will, she feels obligated to become involved. And that makes all the difference.

Well, that and the fact that when she falls off her roof she has a “meet cute” with a hunky paramedic.

Moyes has said that this sequel was hard to write because so many people loved Lou and had so many expectations for how her life should turn out.  She understood that some people wouldn’t like it, no matter what she wrote and had to write the story that she felt was true to the character.

Granted, Me Before You is a hard act to follow. While After You is not quite as compelling, it is satisfying. Moyes does a beautiful job of setting the reader in the midst of family and personal struggles as Lou makes uneven progress through her grief. There is humor and sadness and tension and love and letting go. I recommend it if, like me, you need to know the rest of the story.

One novel idea about getting smarter, not just older

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The kindergartners dressed as if they were 100 years old on the 100th day of school.

This post is in response to a brief blog-versation I had with the charming Brian over at Bonnywood Manor after he kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award. Liebster means “favorite” in German and the nomination carries along with it some obligations, which I am politely, humbly, and gratefully ignoring. Brian was curious about my creative process and the critique group to which I belong. Therefore, instead of accepting the award, I wrote this. If you have something to say about writing, creativity, or lifelong learning, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. XO


In this photo, my granddaughter is celebrating her 100th day of kindergarten and being “100 DAYS SMARTER.” It got me thinking, shouldn’t we all celebrate getting smarter? Am I still learning?
I like to think so, but some of that learning is accidental. For example, perhaps we should have gotten an estimate to replace the roof on this twenty-year-old house before we made our offer. Or maybe drinking several cups of tea with my sushi at dinner the other night wasn’t such a good idea. I guess that’s what they mean by “live and learn.”

Other times, however, I’ve set out to learn a new skill. On purpose. I’ve put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being potentially and embarrassingly bad at something. Like blogging. Or yoga. In short, I’ve risked failure. At my age, being new at anything is refreshing—scary and humbling–but refreshing. Even exhilarating.
Case in point, at the urging of my friend, Joan, I wrote a “novel” in 2009 during NaNoWriMo. The quotes are because my “novel” was merely 70,000 words of collected scenes and sketches, held together with hope, Dove wrappers, and sticky notes. It added up to a word count, but little else. I knew I needed help massaging it into something meaningful (readable even?), but what kind of help? How much? And who do I ask?
Enter another friend, Marilee, who just happened to be a legendary writing instructor at Western Nevada College and founder of Lone Mountain Writers, a local critique group. LMW has been meeting every other week for over twenty years and has among its past and present members several published poets and authors such as romance writer, Wilma Counts. Marilee invited me to join. I accepted.
During my first few meetings, I observed the protocol and learned the ground rules. Up to four pieces are emailed to the group ahead of time so we have a chance to read deeply and make notes. Submissions can be up to fifteen pages. The group responds round-robin style with each of our oral comments limited to two or three minutes, all while the author remains stoically silent. We hand over our marked up copy to the author who only at the end may ask questions, defend, or clarify something.
I was profoundly impressed by the variety and quality of writing. Many people were working on novels. And for the most part, they didn’t need help with grammar or punctuation. The discussions focused on elements of fiction: plot, point of view, character, structure, pacing, voice, etc. These are the things a reader may not even notice, except in their absence. It’s what makes a reader want to invest time and thought and heart in the work. That stuff.
Consequently, I waited months before I worked up the courage to submit. I’d been writing personal narratives and opinions for years, but fiction was new to me. I polished my first chapters until (I thought) they sparkled. I just knew the group would be blown away by my literary genius. Instead, what I heard–repeatedly–was, “This is excellent writing, but you don’t have a story here.” Apparently, what I had was a mess of good writing.

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But the story in my head kept pushing me forward. It wouldn’t let me give up.

So I kept listening and learning. I read books on writing and revising. I rewrote and resubmitted. I attended a local writers conference and got feedback from a real, live editor. I “killed my darlings,” deleting lovely little bits of writing that didn’t serve my story. I learned not to take any critique personally and to listen to those who shared my vision for my story. I smiled and respectfully set aside advice from those who wanted my story to become theirs. (It needs more explosions! How about some robots?)

Now, five years and countless drafts and revisions later, what I hear is, “This is the best thing you’ve submitted,” and “I finally like this character. I understand her now.” Whew.
So while I may not have a cute hat to wear to celebrate getting smarter, I nonetheless feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s enough to keep me going. Good thing, because it’s not done yet. But neither am I. I’ve invested too much time and energy to quit now. I’m smart enough to know that.come this far2

Atticus is just a man after all

blog go setAt twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit with her adored father, Atticus. He’s seventy-two now, quite crippled with arthritis but still mentally sharp and practicing law. In Scout’s mind as in the minds of readers who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the perfect father as well as a fair, courageous, and honorable man. He is the archetype of the parent we wish we had and the person we wish to be. His character has achieved mythic status.
But Scout’s world is shaken when she overhears his racist, ungenerous and patronizing remarks made at a citizen council meeting. She is devastated and made physically ill by the thought that she could have been so blind to his true colors. She feels betrayed by everyone in Maycomb, everyone she trusted.

“…You confused your father with God.”

Some of the remarks I’ve read regarding the book are critical of Atticus’s words and beliefs. Readers themselves perhaps feel betrayed by what they perceive as a failing in this father they have come to know and love. Their hero didn’t live up to their expectations and has toppled off the pedestal. Hmmm.

Harper Lee is under no obligation to the reader with regards to Atticus’s character. It is fiction, after all. The Atticus in Watchman is more complex and certainly a man of his time and place. And isn’t it also consistent with normal human development that it’s not until her mid-twenties that a somewhat naive Scout comes to terms with the reality of her father and not just the myth she idolized as a child? Our parents are human, not divine. The world is not black and white. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the same issues as Scout. Perhaps this is our own coming-of-age story as well as hers.
Well-done, Miss Lee.

Love remembers us

The Day We Met: A Novel

by Rowan Coleman

day we met coverThis book moved me in a way that is hard to explain. Three—soon to be four—generations of women cope with the role reversals and the inherent tensions involved when Claire, a forty-something wife and mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her world and her connection to it are rapidly disappearing into a fog. She tries to anchor herself to stay present in each moment.

While riding on a train, Claire explains to the reader, “And yet, looking at my reflection, in the window opposite, hollow and translucent, I see a woman disappearing. It would help if I looked like that in real life—if the more the disease advanced, the more ‘see-through’ I became until, eventually, I would be just a wisp of a ghost. How much more convenient it would be, how much easier for everyone, including me, if my body just melted away along with my mind… Then we’d all know where we were, literally and metaphysically. I have no idea if that makes sense, but I like that I remember the word metaphysical.”
Claire can no longer drive, teach, read to her three-year-old child, or be trusted outside alone. And while she remembers loving her husband, she no longer feels love for him. She worries that if emotions are so easily altered, if they are real at all. Her mother tries to reassure her.
“I think they are real,” Mum says. “I love you more that I have ever loved anyone—even your father, and I loved him very much. And Greg loves you, and that is real, much more real than I thought, I’ll admit. Esther and Caitlin love you. A lot of people love you. And all of the feelings they have for you are real. I think it’s love that lasts. It’s love that remembers us. It’s love that is left when we are gone. I think those feelings are more real than our bodies and all the things that can go wrong with them. This”—she pinches her forearm—“is just the packaging.”

The power and endurance of love and the ways in which we show it are reinforced through what could have been a very depressing tale, but instead is hopeful, uplifting, surprising and–at times–even funny.

“What will be left of us all, is the love we have given and received.”

Anne Barbara Liane

Silver Lining Mama

SHE-LOGY: Celebrating female authors, written by guest blogger Lorie Schaefer, who also wrote another She-logy post to celebrate her favorite children’s book authors. Check out her blog — nvlorie.

Thank you, Lorie, for yet another beautiful set of women, and for introducing us to your favorite female authors!

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